Friday, 26 September 2014

Kerstin Ekman. Under the Snow (London: Vintage, 1997)

Kerstin Ekman (1933-) has an affinity to Swedish forests and mountains. It is a landscape of many of her books, a landscape she says carries inside her. In Sweden, Ekman is known for her writing about women and society. Her Katrineholm Quartet (1974-1983 describes the growth of a small railway stop into an industrial town. It has also been issued as Kvinnorna och staden (The Women and the Town). It is considered her major work. Since only Ekman’s detective novels have been translated into English, the Anglo-American audience has a very narrow view of her literary output. For a Swedish view into her career, see, for example, her author’s page at the publisher Albert Bonnier’s website.

Ekman began her literary career with detective fiction in 1959. For a good overview on this aspect of her career, see “Kerstin Ekman and Swedish Crime” by Anna Paterson, one of Ekman’s translators, in the Swedish Book Review in 2010. Under the Snow is Ekman’s fourth novel, published in 1961. It was translated into English in 1997, after the success of the English publication Händelser vid vatten (1993) as Blackwater in 1995. The Swedish title of Under the Snow is De tre små mästarna (The Three Small Masters). This is a reference to a winning hand in the game of mah-jong. In the book, it has been translated for English readers as “Three Big Dragons” (p15). The title Under the Snow conjures up the cold Norrbotten, where the novel is set, even if, ironically, most of the action takes place in warmth of summer. Perhaps there is a sufficient echo of “under the sun” in the title.

Like mah-jong, Under the Snow “is astonishingly simple. However … There are all kinds of fine points and complications.” (p15) The crime plot is simple enough. In a remote village of Rakisjokk, Matti Olsson freezes to death in the snow. The police close the case as a misadventure. Constable Bengt Torsson is not happy with this decision and, in the following July, he returns to Rakisjokk with Matti’s friend David Malm. They discover that Matti was murdered. In the reluctant, tight-lipped village community, they have a circle of eight suspects: seven people in the village and one hermit up in a Sami camp. While David is the brash outsider, Torsson uses his understanding of the local temperament to solve the crime.

There are some parts in the plot that are not convincing: consider the motivation for the shooting of the reindeer (Chapter 6) and the role of the lasso (Chapter 9). It is also not clear what is the significance of the fate of Matti’s paintings (Chapter 1) or the detective’s first attempt to meet with Edvin Jerf (Chapter 8), although both clearly contribute to a sense of mystery. The “fine points and complications” in Under the Snow are mostly not in the plot line, but in other aspects of the narrative.

The structure in Under the Snow is in the service of the story. At 174 pages the book is short by current standards. There is no room for padding; this gives the novel more immediacy, more punch. Shorter novels are also easier for their authors to master: the plot is tighter, the message distilled to better clarity. Carefully considered small novels like Under the Snow are usually more effective and more enjoyable than the rambling total hard drive downloads of writers like Jo Nesbø or Stieg Larsson.

Under the Snow follows the principle of fair play: all the information is given to the reader putting her on a par with Torsson and David. Ekman does not explain the detective's conclusions and motivations. Instead, it is left for the reader to replicate the detective’s train of thought. This makes for engaging reading and creates narrative tension.

Every scene takes the main story forward; every chapter ends with a turning point that propels the story into a slightly different direction. Ekman manipulates the point of view in the narrative to good effect. We learn about Matti’s death from Torsson’s perspective (Chapter 1). David’s point of view takes over for most of the narrative; he observes the process of detection and its impact. In the middle of the novel, when the investigation to Matti’s death disrupts the relationships in the village, the narrative view point also fractures to that of several locals (Chapter 7). Chapter 12 is dramatically told in a first person narrative: we are now so close to the resolution, that we can literally hear the killer’s thoughts. Chapter 7 “The Day of Wrath” is the critical midpoint where the village community falls apart. It is written in the present tense. This device tends to add speed and urgency to a narrative. Its effect here is to make the reader prick up her ears and pay even more attention.

Rakisjokk is a closed environment: entrances and exits can be guarded and the number of inhabitants is limited. Consider the children: the activities of the village centre around a school, but where do the children at the school come from? The only village adults in the novel are the eight suspects, and none of them have children.

The elusive nature of the children only adds to the otherworldly and fantastical feel of Rakisjokk. It appears to us like a dream world, attached to reality with tenuous ties of a bad phone line and a spluttering boat engine. The impenetrable darkness of the winter and the unbearable brightness of the summer are in stark contrast (yin and yang, to continue the Chinese theme of mah-jong). Sun appears in the narrative as an ambivalent force. It travels eastwards (p56, during the night when it does not set). The power of the sun is at its zenith in the final chapter, entitled “The Sun Never Stops” (Chapter 13).

The characters’ love-hate relationship with the sun and with Rakisjokk is described well. Rakisjokk people gather in March to welcome the first glimpse of the sun “This was the moment they had all marked in their diaries (p.18). In July, in “the eternal light” where time seemed to stand still and light pressed against her temples, Kristina Maria prays “Oh, winter, please come …” (p86). Rakisjokk is like fairyland; it imprisons you by some magic (pp.48, 52, 89, 137, 164).

The contrast between light and dark is also worked into unreliable sensory perceptions. In the opening scene it is dark winter. Torsson has just drawn a sun on his blotter (p3) when he gets the message about Matti’s death through a very bad phone line, disrupted by the cold and the wind (p3-4). As Torsson arrives at Rakisjokk, he sees vague figures moving about the village (p7); characters appear from the darkness as if by magic (pp8, 10). The crime committed in darkness is followed by its investigation in glaring sunlight. But in the light too, it is difficult to see clearly: David “hated … the way people kept materialising out of nowhere.” (p99). There are several references to the ability to see (e.g. pp.19, 86, 130, 140, 142, 152).

To the problem of seeing clearly is added the difficulty of hearing. Rakisjokk is in the Swedish Lappland, close to the Finnish border. People are fluent in Swedish, the language of the authorities, Finnish, the language of the old settlers, and Sami, the language of the original people of the area. The three languages provide three layers of secrecy. David is hampered by his ability to only understand Swedish (p65). Torsson proves his deeper grasp of the local psyche by also speaking Finnish. But even his abilities are limited, because his understanding of Sami is poor. The locals switch from one language to another depending on how widely they want to be understood (pp.13, 19, 20, 104, 124). There are Finnish sentences scattered across the pages (e.g. pp.5, 10, 13, 20, 65, 91, 104, 152, 160), which adds to the exotic feel in the narrative but does not hamper it flow or the understanding of the reader

The core of the mystery belongs to the Sami. At their first attempt to meet the Sami village lder and a hermit Edving Jerf, Torsson and David fall asleep and end up fleeing the place (pp64-65) . Second time, guided by Edvin’s son Per-Anders they meet Edvin. He refuses to speak a language they understand and obscures their vision with smoke (pp,103, 105). Torsson is only able to understand one Sami world “Passesadje,” a word which leads them to another encounter with Sami magic. In Under the Snow Torsson translates the word “passesadje” as “Place of Sacrifice” (p105). I spent some time tracing this word. A sami holy place of sacrifice and worship is usually spelled as “sieidi”, “seida”, or “seitse” in Sami, “seita” in Finnish. Alternatively, “Beassáš” or “bassi” means ‘holy’ and “áddjá” means a “grandfather” and is also used as a name for gods (for example, “Radien-Adja” for the god of sky and the top god in the Sami pantheon or “Áddjá” for the god of thunder). “Passesadje” could be read as a combination of these two words, as well. The name of the place of sacrifice remains unpronounceable to Torsson and David (pp109, 111); they are outsiders. 

The one aspect of modern life old  Edvin Jerf remains keen on is coffee. Coffee remains the essential lubricant of any social meeting in the Nordic countries, also in Rakisjokk (e.g. pp.89, 103, 123,141). In the last few chapters of Under the Snow Ekman turns it into David’s running joke: “the whole of Rakisjokk is nothing but one long caffeine poisoning.” (p136, also 141).

David is the comic relief in the novel. He brings impulsive lightness to the narrative. He is the counterweight to the heavy-set ponderousness of Torsson, “the splendid fat old policeman” (p62). The narrator refers to David always more familiarly and intimately by his first name, whereas Torsson is Torsson, never Berndt. The narrator is more remote and more reserved with the local northerner.

The most accomplished aspects of Under the Snow are its carefully balanced structure and its depiction of the characters and the locale. The story is told with beautiful economy and yet it is rich with detail that creates a fully believable and engaging world. Under the Snow is an extremely well crafted novel.