Hash, by Torgny Lindgren


Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Tom Geddes

The phenomenon of the “unreliable narrator” is one that arises fairly frequently in book blog discussions. Just how much credence should we give this person?, it usually starts out. And as we start to question more and more of what is narrated, what does it mean about the book?

Given that, it is worth noting that Torgny Lindgren opens Hash with a definitive statement about his narrator. It is December, 1947 and the narrator, a 53-year-old freelance journalist in northern Sweden, is working on “a local news report” about developments in Avaback when his mail arrives. One piece is a letter from his newspaper editor that includes the following:

“For some time now, after tactful inquires from perplexed and concerned readers, we have carried out careful investigations into the veracity of the reports you have submitted over the course of the years, the all too many years, which we have published conscientiously honestly and fearlessly.

“Having done so, we have found your reports, not to put too fine a point on it, completely devoid of any basis in fact. The reality which you appear to describe is nothing more than a figment of your imagination.

“The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hoback marsh never took place. The schoolhouse in Avaberg that burned down three years ago never existed. No unknown celestial body “with shimmering corona” ever rose above your horizon. There has never been a turkey farm ravaged by a bear in your district. Nor has there ever been a factory producing a vitamin shampoo. I could go on.”

And indeed the editor’s letter does, but that is enough of a quote to supply flavor. Okay, I am a sucker for journalism novels, and journalists can be just as unreliable as any other narrator, but here is one whose credibility is totally destroyed by page 10. For that reason alone, I’d give Lindgren 10 out of 10 for sparking initial interest.

The narrator puts his writing-stand and pencil into storage at the end of that chapter (although he does spend some later pages composing wonderful, but unwritten, replies of denunciation to the editor). We next meet him exactly 53 years later in 2000 when the death of the newspaper editor (at the age of 98, it should be noted) causes him to ask for his writing-stand and pencil again. He is now living in the Sunnybank Rest Home and, at age 106, it is not just that request which signifies change:

Year by year his skin was becoming smoother. And like Goethe, he woke with an erection every morning. Death was receding further and further from him. Two new wisdom teeth had emerged in his upper jaw. He was once more able to hum Peterson-Berger’s arrangement of Froding’s Titania, even the difficult passage conveying the rustle of hazel and birch. His hair had started regrowing on the nape of his neck and at the temples, dark and thick. The podiatrist heaped praise on his feet, no corns any more and the nails increasingly strong and firm. Even his sight had improved: he was reading the newspaper without spectacles, including everything that had been written by the former editor.

We aren’t just dealing with a compulsive, if inventive, liar here (as a former journalist, I love the idea of the week-long story about freeing the trapped elk), we are dealing with someone who at the age of 106 has reversed the aging process. And, having called for his tools, he is about to take up writing again. The world of his imagination continues to acquire concrete reality as he begins his new “journalistic” story, also set back in 1947:

The war criminal Martin Bormann, wanted throughout Europe, and even in South America. In the two years that have elapsed since the war there have been countless sightings of him: as a ski instructor in the Austrian Alps, on trains near Paris and Budapest, as a sailor on an Atlantic steamer, a baritone in a chuch choir in Jylland in Denmark. He was even spotted attending a conference on nuclear disarmament in Amsterdam.

Now he has turned up here.

Lindgren has completed the introduction to his fantasy world, but hang on to your chair. He introduces a couple of other characters: Bormann’s landlady, Eva Marklund, and, more importantly, the new schoolteacher in the district, Lars Hogstrom. Hogstrom has spent his young life in hospitals as a tuberculosis victim (the condition pervades the area and kills a lot of its residents) and he has emerged not only healthy, but “immune”. The two become friends and, after a little bit more stage setting, embark on the search that dominates the book.

A search for the perfect Swedish hash.

I am pretty sure that every culinary culture has its version of “hash” (we can discuss our personal favorites in comments). The base is offal and other apparently useless parts of meat, stewed, spiced, boiled slowly over days and set in aspic. In Sweden, apparently, every village and valley has its own version — cooked in the fall and left to age in the cold cellar. Potatoes and condiments (especially beetroot) are frequently present, but how the eater mixes this all up is left to individual taste.

“It’s not like anything else at all,” [Lars] said. “Not sausage and not veal loaf or headcheese or meat roll or pigs’ trotters. And certainly not like sausage meat.”

“No,” said Eva Marklund. “Of course not.”

“It’s absolutely unique,” said Lars Hogstrom. “It could conquer the world.”

“Avabeck hash is more or less entirely meat,” she said. “Maybe just the odd extra ingredient. But in Morken it’s even stronger.”

Yes, she went on, there were plenty of other types of hash, and they were all more remarkable and more complex than Avaback hash. She should make special mention of Lillaberg hash, which was very finely minced and kind of smoother. Not to speak of Raggsjo hash, which was darker in color but light in taste and had an aroma reminiscent of ginger yet not exactly ginger. Any chance to eat that hash was a real privilege.

And then there is Ellen’s hash in Lillsjoliden, but saying any more about that would be a spoiler (no pun intended).

Hash is an exercise in imagination, a very successful one for this reader. Everyday elements are spun off into fantasy — well-developed characters are given entirely fantastic traits, but Lindgren keeps returning to the very-real present. The overall impression is like looking at this part of Sweden through a literary version of an intricate kaleidoscope. There are lots of laughs along the way and, when the author demanded licence, I was more than willing to grant it. The novel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I am sure that images from it are going to keep coming back to mind. One that I haven’t got around to mentioning yet is Bertil, a character who appears frequently: “That’s only Bertil,” [Eva] said about the young man by the door. “He pops up all over the place.”

And he does.

My thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters for drawing my attention to this book (you can read her review here) — she and I exchange thoughts on “journalist” books. This is a very worthy addition to the genre. If you want an entirely entertaining read that takes you away from the present, without in anyway denying it, Hash is worth your attention.


23 Responses to “Hash, by Torgny Lindgren”

  1. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    Last year I was given this book by the Dutch translator, after having enjoyed another imaginative and highly original novel by Torgny Lindgren (Light. Your review has convinced my that I really must read Hash soon.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anna: I am interested in exploring Lindgren further. This work was not conventional in any way, but certainly had much to recommend it. My limited experience with literary Swedish fiction has been positive — and I have to admit that I thought about The Twin more than a few times when I was reading this book.


  3. kimbofo Says:

    Hooray!! So glad you liked it. It’s a ludicrous story really, but as you say, if you’re prepared to grant the author some licence it’s a wonderful (and funny — in all senses of the word) read.


  4. anokatony Says:

    I read “Hash” several years ago, don’t remember too much about it but do remember liking it a lot. I’ve been meaning to read more Torgny Lindgren, sounds like “Light” might be a good choice.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim, Tony: Quite ludicrous story, but in a very pleasant kind of way. Mrs. KfC was very surprised when she read the review that a) I liked it as much as I did given what I had said while reading it and b) “hash” was something you ate not smoked. It was one of those books that moved up significantly when it came time to write the review — I hadn’t realized on first reading how much I appreciated some passages.

    (Aside to you and other bloggers: This happens to me about every fifth or sixth book — a book that I thought was just “okay” gets better when it comes time to review it. Have you had similar experiences? And if you have, examples would be appreciated.)

    I have to admit that I don’t think I am going to be frequently reminded of the overall theme of the book (beyond a journalist’s desire to create an over-arching convenient story, that doesn’t have to be based in reality — and we do have some other examples of that). I am going to remember some wonderful moments. And given that every time we go to our local European deli (which is more often than once a week) I want to buy some slices of “that loaf”, which is near to a version of hash, I am going to frequently be reminded of this book. Now if I could only find a decent local source of pickled beetroot, things would be perfect. 🙂


  6. Trevor Says:

    (Aside to you and other bloggers: This happens to me about every fifth or sixth book — a book that I thought was just “okay” gets better when it comes time to review it. Have you had similar experiences? And if you have, examples would be appreciated.)

    Yes. In fact, it happened with the book whose review I posted today, Madeleine Is Sleeping. I enjoyed it bit by bit while reading but it took some thought afterwards to figure out whether I liked it as a whole. While reviewing the book, some dots started to connect for me that wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t think it improved a whole lot in my mind, as I was already generally positive, but it certainly did improve.

    It doesn’t seem to happen the other way as much if at all. Often I get a clearer picture of why I really disliked a book. I suppose sometimes while writing a review, all the annoying things come up at once and I probably come across quite furious on my blog, but I try to temper that with revision. Most likely, if I sound furious on my blog it’s because the book was infuriating while reading it.


  7. kimbofo Says:

    This happens to me frequently, Kevin — ie. books going up in my opinion after I’ve left them to settle for a bit. But it also works the other way: it the immediate afterglow of reading a book I’m ready to sing its praises, but if I leave it a week or two and find I cannot remember a thing about it, then, well, it doesn’t get the star-rating I might have given it had I written the review when I reached the final page.


  8. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    This is Mrs KFC checking in to defend my honour. I do know that “hash ” is food as well as a drug, I just thought the book would be about drugs, not food.
    That said, this sounds like a charming book and one I plan to read.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor, Kim: Unlike many reviewers, I don’t keep notes or even page references when I read — I just go with the flow. I think what happens with me is that when I go back to sections where I remember quotable passages, I find that they had more meaning and importance than I realized on first exposure. And in a book like this one where I want a number of quotes for illustration (this review has more than normal for me) I discover that there were more threads to the book than I originally thought. Frankly, I don’t feel that just “thinking” about the book would produce that result — it is the discipline of writiing about it and looking up references that produces altered thoughts.

    For me, as well, it rarely works the other way. I’d say that some mediocre books slip in impression (although it doesn’t happen that often) but can’t recall one that I really liked where I went downhill when I sat down to write about it. Like Trevor, if I decide to review a book that I quite dislike, I’m afraid that the critical language sometimes becomes excessive.


  10. anokatony Says:

    My best example of a book that I didn’t care for much while reading but now value highly is probably “Home” by Marilyne Robinson. Originally I was somewhat put off with this down home in Iowa story of a preacher and his son, but I keep thinking more and more about it and appreciate it more.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: A very interesting example, because my impression of Home and Robinson went in the other direction. I respected and admired the writing and novel on first blush, but my “distaste” for the story became more prevalent later on. I would observe that our different responses are actually a tribute to the author in the sense that her work planted seeds that produced some very different results. While I don’t think I have to like the book, I must admit that I have to admire the author for provoking such a personal response.


  12. Cherine Badwi Hlady Says:

    Books with unreliable narrators dazzle me (I’m thinking of Atonement and Barney’s Version especially) so will have to pick this up.


  13. 1streading Says:

    I’ve been an admirer of Lindgren since I picked up a remaindered copy of In Praise of Truth largely because it was cheap and sounded interesting. I would echo the comments above regarding Light which I think is his best novel – a novel that genuinely transports you in time.
    I’m also glad to hear that you don’t make notes as you read. I never have time and then feel inadequate afterwards for not having made the effort!


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    1streading: Well, some decades have reading have convinced me that if a book is good enough, I will remember where the good parts are. I will admit that to get quotes for reviews I have do have to go back to the sections that I remember to find them — but I also find that a rewarding experience. And, yes, sometimes, it does show me that I overlooked something in the first place. 🙂

    I have put Light onto the radar for further exploration.


  15. Shelley Says:

    My grampa (not the one I write about) was from Sweden, so I’m always on the alert for books set there. Thanks for this. About reliable narrators: it’s like in life, isn’t it? Even when we do the best we can, we’re not totally reliable.


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: It is way more fun when we aren’t. And I think you will find this a most entertaining book.


  17. Tom C Says:

    What a complex book that sounds – but obviously one that draws you in to its rather multi-dimensional world. Its funny how Scandinavian books have become so accessible these days – I don’t remember seeing many in the bookshops 20 years ago. And what a treasure chest they have been too.


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I agree with you about Scandanavian books (and I am talking literary fiction, not even Stieg) being more available now. When I was reading this one, I thought more than once about Per Petterson and Roy Jacobsen’s novels (the latter reviewed elsewhere here). I know that when translators get together they complain about the lack of works being translated into English, and they do have a point. On the other hand, all my experience says that modern publishing has made more available — a emarketing, for all its flaws, made the volumes more accessible. And we are certainly better off for it.


  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That opening is rather audacious. I like it. I also assumed it would be about drugs by the way.

    I can’t think of examples right this moment, but it’s common for me to go back to a review and think “huh, I thought I’d liked it more than that” or “huh, I don’t remember it being that good”. Any review is a snapshot at a point in time, but some books grow afterwards and some fade.

    Thankfully the very few books I’ve called masterpieces I still rate. It’d be embarassing to go back and think “I called that a masterpiece?”

    This paragraph:

    “The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hoback marsh never took place. The schoolhouse in Avaberg that burned down three years ago never existed. No unknown celestial body “with shimmering corona” ever rose above your horizon. There has never been a turkey farm ravaged by a bear in your district. Nor has there ever been a factory producing a vitamin shampoo. I could go on.”

    totally sells me on this book. Wonderful.


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Thanks for citing that paragraph — it did the same for me. I immediately knew that there was absolutely no reason to give any credence to what the narrator said — which did not matter at all, given these examples of what his imagination could produce.


  21. Teddy Says:

    I adore Torgny Lindgren´s books. They are all published in in Danish.
    He has a lovely underplayed subtle humor in most of the books.
    Get a hold of The Way of the Serpent, which is very serious but a fantastic book. One of my favorites:-)



  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Teddy: Thanks for the recommendation. Hash is the only Lindgren that I have read but I like his style well enough that I would like to try more.


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