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.