"The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become."

- Milan Kundera
The Writing On the Wall, by Gunnar Staalesen

I think it's safe to assume that Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen, author of The Writing On the Wall, has issues with evangelical Christians. Early in this book two characters, a cross-dressing judge who dies in bed with an underage prostitute, and a Bergen organized crime kingpin, are both identified as members of the “Christian People's Party” (usually translated “The Christian Democratic Party”), the traditional party of conservative Christians in Norway. (Did you know that evangelical Christians control organized crime in Bergen? I didn't either, but that's the impression Staalesen leaves.)

I'll have to admit he fooled me, though. With an opening like that, I took it for granted that the perpetrator of the murder at the center of this story, the death by asphyxiation of a teenaged girl, would be the evangelical crime boss. As it turned out he wasn't guilty of that, though he was guilty of plenty of other things.

Staalesen's hero, private detective Varg Veum (the last name's pronounced VAY-oom), is apparently supposed to be a kind of Norwegian Philip Marlowe, tough and wry and world-weary. I didn't get that at all, frankly, until a fight finally happened, and Veum turned out to be able to take care of himself, to my surprise. I'd imagined him kind of effete based on his earlier behavior, especially his interest in describing women's clothing, and home furnishings, in loving detail.

But I may have missed some narrative hints that could be present in the original and lost in translation. The translation here is of that maddening variety that's technically irreproachable, every phrase literally correct, but tone-deaf in terms of style and nuance, so that the characters speak as no English speaker ever would, mixing formal diction with British slang. All the characters talk the same way, and are equally unconvincing.

Hey, Norwegian publishers! Are you looking for an English translator? I can do better than this guy!

Anyway, it was all fairly unrewarding, especially for evangelical like me. I'm pretty sure Staalesen doesn't want my business, and he won't be getting any more of it.

Cautions for language and adult themes.


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