Monday, 20 July 2015

Gunnar Staalesen. Kalde hjerter (Gyldendal, 2012)

Gunnar Staalesen (1947-) began his writing career in 1969 with the novel  Uskyldstider,  turned to crime fiction in 1975 with Rygg I rand, to I spann featuring policemen Dumbo and Maskefjes, and had his real breakthrough with the first Varg Veum-novel Bukken til havresekken in 1977. Staalesen has published seventeen novels and two collections of short stories with Varg Veum, the latest Ingen er så trygg i fare in 2014. Kalde hjerter the the fourteenth Varg Veum novel.

Staalesen’s books have been turned into films, TV series and plays. He is considered the “grand old man” of Norwegian crime writing and is specifically recognized for the constant good quality of his output.  He has won several  Scandinavian prizes for crime fiction; he was the “festivalforfatter” (“writer in residence”) for the annual crime fiction festival in Oslo in March 2015. There is even a statue of Varg Veum in Bergen, in the doorway of the Strand Scandic Hotel (at the address of Veum’s detective office Strandkaien 2-4).

So far, five Varg Veum -novels have been translated into English, and of these Staalesen considers three to be among his best work: Yours Until Death (Din til døden, 1979), The Writing on the Wall (Skriften på veggen, 1995) and The Consorts of Death (Dødens drabanter, 2006). At Night All Wolves are Grey (I mørket er alle ulver grå, 1983) was published in English translation in 1986, but seems not to have been re-issued since then. Cold Hearts (Kalde hjerter, 2008) is the latest Varg Veum novel to be translated into English.

Gunnar Staalesen is ‘nordic noir’ (to quote Nils Nordberg). Most commentators on Staalesen’s writing point out echoes of Raymond Chandler and Staalesen acknowledged in an interview for Irish Times (April, 17, 2015) that Chandler’s novels are probably the books that have influenced him the most. Throughout Kalde hjerter, too, we can detect the shadow of Philip Marlowe in both Veum’s character and in Staalesen’s narrative style. 

Kalde hjerter opens in June 1997 with Varg Veum at his son Thomas’s wedding in Oslo. Veum has a night of passion with his ex-wife Beate and tells her of a time he was shot and almost died (pp6-7). Varg takes Beate to the grave of the other person involved in this incident. At the airport waiting for his flight back to Bergen, Varg remembers a case involving Thomas’s old girlfriend Hege Jensen. As his plane takes off, Varg recalls this case – this is the story of Kalde hjerter.

The first chapter does not link directly to the plot of the novel. We never see Varg disembark from the plane. This apparently superfluous opening lets Staalesen position his story as an episode in the long career on Varg Veum. It is also possible to argue that the narrative opens with the ideas of family, parenthood, children growing up and making their own way in the world. This is a theme that almost suffocates the narrative.

The second chapter offers an alternative, Chandleresque opening: It is a bleak January day and Veum is kicking about in his office drinking coffee and reading the day’s papers. A young woman with high heels and full lips walks into his office: “Hun hade ikke mange smil til overs og ingen til meg.” (“She did not have many smiles left over, and none for me.” p12). She lights a cigarette and hires Veum to find a friend, another young prostitute, who has disappeared (p17). She offers to pay Veum for his services “I naturalia” (p19). The trail of the vanished woman Margrethe Monsen leads Veum in two directions: to the trail of organized crime in Bergen with prostitution and drugs smuggling, and to Margrethe’s childhood in a dysfunctional family of alcoholic parents.

Like Marlowe, Veum is a knight in shining armour; he rushes out to rescue a woman, abandoning his half-cooked dinner (p210), and warns the criminals: “Fra i dag av er Hege under min beskyttelse. Hører du?” (“From today Hege is under my protection. Do you hear?”) Veum says: “Moralist har jeg aldri vӕrt.” (“A moralist I have never been.” p155), when he hears of a friend’s extramarital affair. And yet, Veum is very much driven by his sense of justice. He condemns evil-doers (pp239, 240-1) and pursues his case, Marlowe-like, out of loyalty to his client (p166). He does not shy away from violence, but apologizes for his own brutality (p234). He refuses sex with other women (even if it is thrown at him), except his ex-wife (pp6, 19, 47, 154). Veum has a big mouth and he will not back down (pp 35, 173-4, 225), but he also lapses to sentimentality, imagining a murdered prostitute as a little girl playing with dolls (p147, see also pp 194, 207, 216, 242 for sentimental imagery).

The treatment of women in Kadle hjerter is a little awkward. They appear powerless; they are victims of exploitation, abuse and murder. They are prostitutes, drug-addicts or just plain apathetic (pp73, 231). Even female social worker – a woman in a position to help other women – has a little sister who died as a prostitute (p38). This is perhaps a kind of sentimentality: women are fragile, child-like and lost in a men’s world.

Staalesen’s Veum is a local boy and details of Bergen geography and history give a strong sense of place in the story (pp9, 21, 82, 98, 113, 178, 197, 221, 236). Veum recognizes places from Margrethe’s childhood snapshots (p25) and recalls his own childhood forays into different parts of Bergen (pp60, 219-20). The town is tribal (pp91, 104, 106, 115, 267-8). Minde is “terra incognita “for Veum, who is “a nordnesgutt” (“a Nordnes-boy,” p60). While in Minde: “En gang Mindegutt, alltid Mindegutt” (“Once a Minde-boy, always a Minde-boy,” p104). In the locals’ speech, “Vel, vel” (“Well, well,”) is repeated time after time (pp81, 104, 147, 180, 185, 196, 197).

In Veum’s Bergen, everyone knows everyone else, at least by reputation (pp40, 67, 77, 84, 86, 115, 125). Veum uses old school friends and colleagues for information and help (p35, 37-8, 120). They work in convenient positions: “kriminalomsorgen” (“correctional service”, p49), an outreach service for prostitutes (p51, 83), the same insurance company as Margrethe’s sister Siv (p57) and as a journalist (p121). They are equally conveniently familiar with the people involved in Veum’s case. Of course, Veum knows the local police and they know him (p67). The police are also surprisingly willing to share information with Veum (pp93, 166, 196). Bergen has only one ‘Malthus’ in the phone book, so it is no difficult for Veum to find where the master criminal lives (p35). It comes as no great surprise that the gangsters share a common past with Margrethe’s family (p125 228). The two strands of Veum’s investigation, organized crime and family tragedy, intertwine.

Veum’s Bergen is a claustrophobic goldfish bowl of crime. It is a small town where most people seem to know each other from childhood, and it still manages to harbour all the crime and social ills of big cities. Staalesen’s Bergen serves as a microcosm of society, as an ‘every town,’ but in Kalde hjerter the contradiction of a tight-knit community living in each others’ pockets and a whole world of crime hiding in its underbelly stretches the limits of plausibility. At the same time, the strange contradiction of a complex modern society inhabited by a small group of people with tightly shared history, is an accurate image of the Norway.

The narrative of  Kalde hjerter does not move forward as much as circle around. Veum has a series of meetings with a cast of characters as if he was taking part in a speed-dating event. At each encounter more of the past (and of the truth) is revealed. This is explicit with the history of the Monsen family: each tale or statement by a neighbour, teacher, friend, relative or colleague reveals a new side to the sorry story (pp73, 87-8, 100-107, 183-4, 201-2, 239). Very little new happens, there is only Varg Veum driving around Bergen and talking with a number of people about the same thing over and over again.

Kadle hjerter is all about the significance of childhood and how lives are affected for ever by bad or good parenting. This theme overwhelms the narrative. Veum used to work in child protection (p49). Even criminals demonstrate the importance of parenting. One gangster curses his own father for forcing him to learn by heart ancient Norse poetry of Håvamål (p230). Even now, as an adult tough-guy, he cannot stop spouting verse. Another  gangster has to leave his henchman to murder Varg, because he has to rush to the nursery to pick up his son (p226). 

“Familien er tross alt den kjernen hele samfunnet vårt er bygget opp på.” (“Family is after all the core that our whole society is built upon." p105) The truth of this statement is rehearsed to exhaustion in Kalde hjerter. Children are depicted as victims in adult society and growing up is portrayed as a very precarious business: “Ofrene var barna. Det var de svakeste som som måtte lide mest. De sterkeste hadde alltid retten på sin side.” (Victims were children. It was the weakest who suffered most. The strongest had always right on their side.” (p242, see also pp204). And if you still do not get the message, at the end of the story Veum tells us: “Kanskje var vi medskyldige, hver jӕvla satan som ikke fikk øynene opp i tide. Kanskje bar vi alle på generasjoners skyld overfor de svakeste, de yngste og mest ubeskyttede.”  (“Maybe we were all equally guilty, every damned devil who did not wake up in time. Maybe we are all carrying generations’ guilt for the weakest, the youngest and the most vulnerable.” p283)

Kalde hjerter has good qualities: the writing is good; as a result the story has a strong setting and vivid descriptions of interiors and people (pp22-25, 71, 114, 122, 137, 186). However, the main theme is overegged in a narrative which wobbles uneasily between hardboiled detection and an exercise in psychological profiling of a family.