Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Brothers - Asko Sahlberg

'the malestrom of time'

translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
The war has been waged, but here we may yet have corpses.

Where should one turn after giving up on a book? Is it best to try something completely different, and should it be different in terms of style, length or in some other way? After 300 pages of a Danish seafaring epic hadn't even brought me to the halfway stage and exhausted my interest I was left becalmed in a sea of possible books but it was this slim volume that arrived in the post that very morning and which ended up becoming my next read. This is because the theme adopted for Peirene Press's latest selection is The Series of the Small Epic. Does an epic novel have to have a page count that helps it double as a doorstop or can the same sense be achieved with something that can be read in an evening? Sahlberg's novella, translated from Finnish, contains just 122 pages but is described as a Shakespearean drama. What that means isn't immediately obvious (you'd think that the breadth of plays he wrote would make it difficult to make his name synonymous with any one style) but it certainly manages to cram in enough history, passion, envy and buried secrets for a drama on a much bigger scale.

In 1809 Finland moved from under the control of the Swedish kingdom to become incorporated into the Russian Empire after war between those two countries. Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, fought on opposite sides and with peace now declared they return to the snow-covered farm where their mother still lives. Despite being the eldest brother Henrik was never interested in taking over the farm and so it was Erik that became the master and who married Anna. Why then has Henrik returned and what is he after? Sahlberg chooses to narrate the novel in the separate voices of each of the characters involved. Short sections from each distinctive voice prove to be an incredibly effective way of cramming in all the backstory and as this is a novella of revelations it also works very well as secrets begin to be revealed.

There is clearly bad blood between these brothers but where does this conflict come from? It is the Farmhand who provides us with his own theory early on.

It all began with the horse. So little is needed for a man's life to go wrong. At first the horse was a colt.  This colt lived on the neighbouring. The day Henrik laid eyes on the colt, and saw the horse it would become, the fate of this house was determined. Henrik was born to understand horses. In any other man, such an understanding would be a gift. In Henrik's case, the gift proved a curse. He didn't see in the horse a future work-horse or even a mount. Such a vision was not enough for Henrik. Was he looking for something in animals that he did not dare to look for in humans? I was sharpening my scythe at the edge of the field when I heard Henrik's breathless voice behind my shoulder: 'I'm going to get a horse.'

It certainly has something to do with a horse, and also with a woman, but perhaps most of all with the way in which the two brothers are so different. The farm may be covered in snow but there is nothing bright and reflective about what we read. It often seems to be dark, with lamps or candles providing the only light; conversations happen in moments of stolen privacy and much of what we learn comes from people observing others. The sense of impending doom and the fear that underpins it is well expressed by Anna.

A man's fear of a man must be different from a woman's. Probably it is colder, like water newly drawn from a well compared with water that has long been standing in a jug.

Perhaps this is what is meant by Shakespearean. If this were a castle rather than a farm then the themes of power, succession and revenge would be every bit as Shakespearean as any of his histories or tragedies. The dark atmosphere and some of the language helps keep it that way which is just as well because with all the plot twists a less accomplished writer might have you expecting to hear the distinctive drums that come at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Something was famously rotten in the state of Denmark and that atmosphere pervades quite literally here in Finland as Henrik remarks on his return.

This house is a cadaver. The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose. I flinch from its decay. It is as if a collection of bones had been unearthed and dressed up in fine clothing to create the illusion of a real body.

It's is difficult to say much more without giving too much of the plot away but if you get the chance to sit down on a cold, dark evening and read the book in a single sitting as I did then it provides a perfect little (and yet epic) entertainment; very much the literary cinema that it claims to be. Think Bergman. And Shakespeare of course.


Simon (Savidge Reads) 16 February 2012 at 17:18  

Great review Will. The thing that I really love about the Peirene novellas are that in one sitting, and these are all best read in one sitting, they take you on a journey and shows you how powerful the form is.

I haven't read this one yet but all the ones I have have been hits with me so this will get a read at some point.

And yes I do think a small book can be a real epic, it just takes a very good author to do it.

William Rycroft 16 February 2012 at 18:38  

As a fan of their work I think you'll enjoy this one Simon. I agree that they are much more enjoyable read in one sitting, in fact I'd suggest that applies to any book up to about 300 pages, if you can only find the time!

stujallen 17 February 2012 at 19:14  

I loved the shifting narration in this one will ,all the best stu

Shelley 17 February 2012 at 20:10  

"After three hundred pages"?

You are an admirable reader.

William Rycroft 17 February 2012 at 21:48  

Yes Stu, I think it really worked well here, also contributing to the atmosphere.

Shelley - I used to be the kind of person who would soldier on until the end of every book but life's too short and so I'm trying to get tougher. I only lasted three hundred because I was pretty much confined to my bed at the time of reading it.

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