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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, December 12th, 2004



by Torgny Lindgren

A stew of intrigue

A review by Alan Brownjohn

Overnight temperatures of between minus thirty and forty Celsius are forecast. A few days before Christmas 1947 a journalist is at work, standing up in his kitchen, on a report of a suspicious stranger who has come to live just outside the village. The man is "musical": in the evenings you can hear him singing Wagner.

Then suddenly the kitchen door opens, and among the mail flung in from the freezing darkness is a letter terminating the reporter's employment. Every story he has filed to his newspaper over many years has been investigated and discovered to be a fabrication. His first instinct is to defend his inventions by reminding his editor of Kierkegaard's belief that "the spirit exists as a dream within man". And that "to have responsibility for a newspaper is to have responsibility for the spiritual, the profoundly human".

Instead he waits. And fifty-three years later the editor dies in harness at the age of ninety-eight, so he feels entitled to call for his writing-stand, request notebooks and pencils, and resume his story. Now 107 years old, he is in a nursing home. Nevertheless he feels rejuvenated, and day by day stands at his old desk again, developing his fiction of how the musical stranger was none other than the war criminal Martin Bormann, the most notable vanished member of Hitler's inner clique, who led the life of an itinerant clothes salesman in this remote district of Northern Sweden after the Second World War.

Hash sets out an entertainingly bizarre case for fiction as more truthful than fact, which never makes entire sense of human existence. But the Swedish polsa has defied translation (the title, in Tom Geddes's translation, could suggest a drug-related theme, which is altogether inappropriate). The "hash" here, a real dish with many variants, is something that begins as a stew, into which over successive days any and every kind of animal offal is thrown and mixed with butter, salt, vegetables, cheese, egg yolk, berry juices, wine, filleted herring and pine resin. Poured into jars, this alarming mixture congeals and can later be cut and eaten in slices.

In one of the numerous explanatory boxes that punctuate the narrative Torgny Lindgren declares that "figuratively" the term can also denote "consolation, mercy, healing or alleviation". Is this what Martin Bormann, pretending to be a Swede, Robert Maser, and the local schoolteacher, Lars Hogstrom -- with whom he has been singing duets - are seeking when they ride on a German motorbike from village to village in search of the perfect hash? In one place they meet the author himself as a boy, leaving him with a lifelong desire to explain the visit of two strangers by making up a tale about them.

Figuratively, yes. And each of the two has an illusion of immunity, another theme of the novel -- which itself rapidly becomes a rich hash of symbols and implications. Bormann trusts he is immune from recognition as the war criminal, Hogstrom from the tuberculosis which confined him to a sanatorium for eight years. Neither is justified in his hopes. Maser's real identity is spotted by a mysterious character who performs the author's function of killing him off. Hogstrom succumbs to consumption when he takes as his lover the diseased supplier of the finest hash he has ever tasted.

Lindgren is the prose laureate of Vasterbatten, the region in which Hash is set: "just marsh and pine forest and felled clearings. And tiny villages and isolated farmhouses". It was also an area stricken with tuberculosis until as late as the 1940s. The author's fantasies, indulged out of a duty he feels (and amply fulfils) to make his native region interesting, are grafted onto a brutal reality, finely observed. The story alternates deftly between a grim past in which Maser and Hogstrom pursue their quest, and a duller but more amenable present in which their centenarian creator, fuelled by brandy, recounts their fictitious progress.

It ends when the local council declines to supply him with more notebooks. Another message there: supplementing the world of hard facts with grimly hilarious invention leaves officialdom feeling uncomfortable. Too late. By now Torgny Lindgren's Vasterbatten in this extraordinary and enthralling dark comedy has become a completely absorbing place.

Alan Brownjohn's twelfth volume of verse, The Men around Her Bed, was published in the UK last month.

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