Lost Books – The Joker

Despite a long acquaintance with the work of Lars Saabye Christensen that began when I read The Half Brother in 2003 before hearing the author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I may never have known about his first appearance in English in 1991, The Joker, translated by Steven Michael Nordby, had I not read about it in M. A. Orthofer’s indispensable The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Literature. From that point on the only difficulty was tracking down a copy of this US only, small press publication! Orthofer had also hinted at the novel’s intriguing premise beginning, as it does, with the narrator, Hans Windelband, finding his own death notice in the paper:

“But I wasn’t dead.

“But that’s what it said in the newspaper.”

He confides in his friend the Butcher (who is, thankfully, a butcher) who tells him to take a vacation – “For the good of us all… I wish you’d stay away for a couple of years” – but he only gets as far as a hotel within walking distance (walking distance with a suitcase) and begins phoning funeral parlours in order to locate his body. When he finally finds it, he discovers that he is no closer to solving the mystery of who was using his name as the individual in question fell four flights out of a window and landed head first on the railings below:

“I looked at it a long time.

“But I couldn’t recognize the face.

“Not even his mother could have recognized that face.”

Hans follows up by attending his own funeral where he meets an old girlfriend, Berit, who is (obviously) surprised to see him, and the dead Hans’ elderly neighbour, Malvin Paulsen, to whom he gives a false name. There is little to learn about his impersonator, however, as Paulsen tells him, “He never went out… He was almost never out of doors. Even his room reveals nothing:

“It occurred to me that everything appeared so impersonal, completely without character.”

Before he can investigate further, he gets into a fight with a couple who are arguing at his hotel, begins to rekindle his relationship with Berit, and is beaten up in a pub with the threat:

“We know who you are… You ought to take it easy, then everything will take care of itself.”

The role of the Butcher also becomes increasingly uncertain as he follows Hans to the funeral and, when Hans returns to his hotel, is waiting for him in his room. Hans, we know, has loaned the Butcher money in the past, and the Butcher has suspicions regarding where this money came from.

As the story unfolds, everything proves to be connected to everything else. For example, Hans meets Malvin in a pub and, through him, Arne who runs removal company Malvin once worked for; he joins Arne on a job, only to discover he is Berit’s ex-husband. Malvin’s brother, an antiques dealer, is somehow involved with the dead ‘Hans’ whom, it turns out, Hans does know. Christensen is happy to stretch these coincidences as far as he can (before Hans knows of Arne’s marriage to Berit he tells us, “Sometimes he reminds me of Berit”) but their implausibility is made bearable not only by the novel’s charm, but by Hans’ impression that its plot is a plot against him. At the same time, it also becomes clear that our narrator is not entirely forthcoming. Where did he get the money to lend the Butcher? And what exactly was his relationship with the dead ‘Hans’? This makes for a thoroughly entertaining mystery, as does the style in which it is written with standout phrases such as:

“…the snow was hanging in the air at an angle like a dirty bed sheet…”

Or:

“The sun was shining like an operating room light. The sky was blue and disinfected.”

Hans is far from perfect but proves to be an endearing narrator: Christensen has a talent for writing about young men that we can see throughout his career from Beatles to, most recently, Echoes of the City. The Joker is an unusual and enjoyable mystery which deserves to be rediscovered.

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4 Responses to “Lost Books – The Joker”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating, Grant, and you do wonder why some books disappear like this. The mixture of the quirky mystery and the writing makes it very appealing.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Love the idea of the premise, which sounds as if it wouldn’t be out of place in one of Jose Saramago’s novels (eg. The Double or All the Names)! Maybe you should submit it to NYRB Classics to see if they’d be interested in picking it up…

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