Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Jo Nesbø. The Son (London: Harvill Secker, 2014)

The Son"People called the boy Sonny and said that he has killed two people as a teenager, that his father had been a corrupt police officer and that Sonny had healing hands." (p1) This is a good introduction to the main character Sonny Lofthus, who sits in his prison cell and listens to the confessions of other prisoners. They find it easy to talk to him, and he absolves them from their sins. One day, a prisoner tells Sonny that his father Ab Lofthus did not kill himself, but was murdered. As Sonny says later: "when I heard the true story ... I was born again." (p419) Sonny breaks out of prison and goes after his father's killers. On his trail is Chief Inspector Simon Kefas, a man who used to be Ab Lofthus's best friend.

This is not one of Nesbø's best books. It is rambling and sloppy compared to his earlier, much more effective, stand-alone novel The Headhunters (2008). The cover blurb tells us that Sonny is on the run, well, for almost the first hundred pages he sits in prison. Only when he escapes, the plot starts to move forward. Then it is bogged down with back-filling. It is usually good to start a story in medias res, but the narrative in The Son constantly stops to tell us what went on in the past, before Sonny ended up in prison. These reminiscences and explanations, Sonny talking about his childhood, Simon thinking about his early career, all add up to a lot of retrospective explanation which clutters the narrative and slows down the momentum. The main characters are stereotypical. This is fine in a story that relies on plot rather than characters to engage its readers. Simon Kefas is a tough guy: "Me? I am the law. So I have to catch Sonny. That's just the way it is." (p366) He does of course have his weaknesses: a streak of recklessness, a gambling addiction and a beautiful young wife about to go blind. His sidekick Kari Adel is "the archetypal Scandinavian female as imagined by foreigners." (pp31-2) As expected, she is ambitious, straight-laced and turns out to live in a same-sex relationship. The Kripos ("the National Criminal Investigation Service") and Simon and Kari's "Oslo Police's Homicide Squad" have a pretty standard stand-off at the first murder scene: the Kripos' "You don't look like you've been told that we're taking over this case." (p142) turns into "We need help, Kefas" (p328) as bodies pile up and they have to admit Simon's superiority.
This is all fine, but Nesbo works too hard. The beauty of using stereotypes is that readers are familiar with them.The master villain is a traditional monster; a king-pin of drugs and human trafficking There is no need to continue to tell us that he is huge, large and enormous, with shovel-hands and a gigantic head. We get the point: the man is a big monster.

Sonny's transformation from a pigeon-chested jail-bird through a cold-turkey into "The Angel from Hell" (p454) is the most unconvincing part of the story: I have to agree with the assistant prison governor: "It was unbelievable that one man, a junkie, could cause so much mayhem." (pp333-4). He is an archetypal hero: a son avenging the death of his father. But the parallels to Jesus Christ are too heavy-handed to be either suggestive or funny. There is Sonny's name, the way he attracts confessions, "that look in his eyes. As if he was innocent." (p329). Then there are the frequent scenes of Sonny with Christ-like details: stigmata (p247), walking on water (p275), resurrecting the dead "by the River Drammen" (p281), turning the other cheek (p388), having a halo (p444), a wound in his side (p455), and I am sure there are others which I did not notice.

This is clearly a Second Coming - if a poor carpenter's son in Judea can be chosen, why not a policeman's junkie son in Oslo? Last time around, the worst thing the Messiah did was kick ass in the temple, why could he not this time go on a rampage with an Uzi? Taxi driver Pelle says to Sonny: "We're just a freezing cold bit of rock up here in the north, but we always had one thing that the other countries didn't have. A certain equality. A certain fairness But now we're busy wrecking it for ourselves." (p384)  Sonny, as the papers later write, "has declared war on organised crime and capitalism." (p407) He is not only clearing his father's name, but ridding Oslo of a criminals and purging corruption from the Norwegian police and business world.

All this rather makes me think Nesbø was writing with his tongue in his cheek. Many of his characters have biblical names, it is no accident that the good woman working at the drug-users' refuge Ila Centre is called Martha (her romance with Sonny is very 'Mills&Boon'), the assistant police commissioner is called Pontius and the story starts with a man called Ab.

Sons and fathers are another obvious theme in this novel. Sonny states that "All I ever wanted was to be like my father." (p419) According to Simon, "A son's responsibility isn't to be like his father, but to be better than him." (p442) There is the further theme of brothers, twins and mirror images. The master criminal is known as the Twin, following a legend: "he dreamt two nights in a row that he killed his brother. He concluded that since they were identical twins, it was logical to assume that his brother had had the same dream. From then on it was simply a question of beating the other one to it." (p270, see also p471) This has obvious parallels with the relationship of Simon Kefas and Ab Lofthus (pp428-430). The tale of the crying baby haunting the Ila Centre touches upon this, although its significance in the novel is not clear: the father of the baby was either a member of the Resistance movement or a Nazi sympathizer (pp219-21). It is a question of another national betrayal.

Drugs are more interesting. Sonny is a junkie, the novel is set among drug-users and drug-pushers. Heroin is not the only drug in The Son. Money is a drug for the criminals and Oslo's corrupt business elite: "once he had become hooked on money, it was like heroin" (p334). Love is another intoxicating and addictive substance, Martha suffers from it (p288). If so many of the people inside the narrative get high, what about the reader? Simon Kefas had a gambling problem, but now he gets his kicks from policing: "Because who can bear to live in a world without crime, without the idiotic rebellion of the stupid, without the irrational ones who bring about movement, change! (p438)  Is there a possibility that Nesbø's fast-paced violent, narrative that grips us and keeps us hooked is a kind of drug? In so many ways, we are no better than Sonny or Simon; we have to get our fix, too.

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