Published:  12:59 AM, 23 July 2017

Coping alone in Copenhagen

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, Translated by Misha Hoekstra, Publisher - Pushkin Press in February 23, 2017

Catherine Taylor limns the life and loves of a  nonconformist translator of crime fiction that vividly captured by Danish author Dorthe Nors

"I write minimalism that is under attack from within," the Danish author Dorthe Nors has said of her bracingly unclassifiable fiction. Nors was first published in English in 2015, with twin works appearing in one reversible volume. Karate Chop comprised 15 razor-sharp, rueful mini-stories, while Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, in which the eponymous heroine is forced to devise her "soundless music" in Copenhagen's public library, took the form of single-sentence social media status updates. The punchy statements such as "Minna is on Facebook" and "Minna isn't a day over 40" were punctuated by more recognizably literary musings: "A woman should have room for a flute, a triangle, and a guitar."

Nors published four full-length novels in Danish before Karate Chop and Minna. In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the first of these to appear in English, admirers of Minna will find welcome similarities in the main character: fiercely nonconformist Sonja is a 40-something Swedish-to-Danish translator of violent Stieg Larsson-style crime fiction, belatedly learning to drive while suffering from real and metaphorical vertigo. Originally from remote west Jutland, she has never got used to big city life in Copenhagen. (Or "gotten" - one of the main intrusions on the reading experience is Misha Hoekstra's aggressively American-English translation, which has the effect of rendering a cosmopolitan European city into something akin to a US shopping mall.)

Newly single after being dumped by fellow translator Paul, Sonja frets in a loquacious expansion of Minna's truncated prose. "I can't shift for myself," she despairs, her wrestling with the car gears being a glaringly obvious metaphor for her life. If the history of its publication were undocumented, it would be tempting to view Mirror as an amplification of Minna: both employ a third-person-as first-person observational narrator. Certainly the formal recklessness of Nors's writing is most apparently effective in the novella - essentially plotless, it is enriched by its own contrivance. With Mirror, Sonja has the task of sustaining the reader's engagement through complete paragraphs, with the mostly successful assistance of a variety of supporting actors.

These include insistently spiritual massage therapist Ellen, and Sonja's two driving instructors: abrasive Jytte, and married Folke, with whom Sonja may or not be flirting - either way, she plays them off against each other as the book progresses. In the background lurk her faraway parents and semi-estranged, married-with-kids older sister, Kate, who uses any pretext, however elaborate, to avoid emotional intimacy. "I'm a parasite on the colossal cadaver of western culture" is a typical mournful but self-deprecating Sonjaism. Her commentary accompanies some excellent situational tragicomedy, such as the scene in which, panic-stricken, she drops out of an all-women "meditative hiking" trek to scoff cake in the park cafe.

Nors is at her most trenchant and empathic when her protagonist, riddled with superstition and uncertainty, is inwardly soliloquizing, whether under the soothing hands of Ellen, in rambling unsent letters to Kate, or the constant harking back to the perceived serenity of a childhood surrounded by wheat fields and whooper swans.

This 200-page lamentation on contemporary loneliness would quickly grate if it were not for the benevolent ingenuity of Nors's writing. When Sonja's narrative breaks free of the corner she has boxed herself into, the prose swoops and soars like her yearned-for whooper swans. It's at these moments that Nors's reinvention of experimental fiction is so marvellous: the remainder of her backlist should not disappoint. (excerpt)


The reviewer is a regular fiction critic for  www.theguardian.com

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