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Svend Åge Madsen: Tugt og utugt i mellemtiden (Virtue and Vice in the Middle Time)

Let’s start with the title. The Danish word tugt means virtue but also means something like discipline or punishment. While utugt is the opposite of tugt, it has the straightforward meaning of prostitution. Hence Tugt of utugt and the excellent translation Virtue and Vice not only convey the sense but recall the titles of Victorian novels such as Pride and Prejudice. The book is nominally written by Ato Vari, a man living well into the future who is writing about his past, specifically what his era knows as the Middle Time and we know as 1500-2000 and, more specifically, about the end of that era, in this case 1974, presumably when this book was written. Vari tells us that this period is shortly before the Great Collapse, though we never learn what the Great Collapse is. Indeed, we learn virtually nothing about Vari’s time, except that it seems that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials. The novel no longer exists in Vari’s time. He tells us that there were two types of novels – those that dealt with the relationship between individuals and which were called love novels and those that dealt with the relationship between the individual and society, which were called hate novels or crime novels. There is also a distinction between the novel – telling stories of what happened – and romances – telling stories of what we hoped would happen. He has used all four forms in his work. Apart from a few authorial interjections, we learn little more about Vari.

The story he has chosen to tell does indeed contain elements of the novel and the romance as well as love and crime. Vari has clearly done his homework and read a variety of novels of the period but he has read novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, rather than those of the 20th century. His basic story, we soon see, bears a lot of similarities to The Count of Monte Cristo, even if it is supposedly set in 1974. As the plot advances we soon begin to recognise other 19th century novels – from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Frankenstein, from Robinson Crusoe to Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris). Indeed, part of the fun is recognising these novels in the plot and style, for Vari writes very much in the 19th century style.

The story concerns Ludvig Alster, who is the Edmond Dantès character. He has been sentenced to a life sentence for the murder of Adam Aftenbakke. Alster is in love with Irmelin Deyk and, at her suggestion, applies for a job in an advertising agency, run by Adam Aftenbakke. The next day Aftenbakke is found brutally murdered and Alster is arrested, on the assumption that he killed Aftenbakke as he was not offered a job. Alster denies this and said that the interview went well but there is no corroborating evidence. He was seen near the spot where the victim’s body was found late at night (he had been visiting Irmelin). He is tried and convicted. At the start of the story, he has been in prison twelve years and, with the help of an accomplice, manages to escape. The accomplice who, like some of the other characters in the book has two names – Skæven (Crooked), his nickname, and his real name of Gustav Nonnetit (an example of Madsen’s creative use of names – Nonnetit means nun’s tit) – not only helps Ludvig to escape but helps him get some money (the proceeds from a foreign exchange fraud by one of their fellow inmates). Ludvig wants revenge more than he seems to want to find the real culprit – revenge against the judge, the policeman who arrested him and investigated the crime and the journalist who wrote scurrilous stories about him in the press before the trial.

Madsen gives us a wonderful 19th century style convoluted plot, with corpses turning out to be alive, ghosts galore, two men in an accident swapping consciousnesses, evil men chaining up innocent young women and corruption in high places. Alster finds, when he gets out, that Irmelin has married and, indeed, married the son of his alleged murder victim. She has two children by the man, Bernard Aftenbakke. His father has died and his mother is in a home. But we also get a series of other plots, particularly one concerning Djahit Midhat, known to all as Lilaiomai, a Turkish immigrant, who gets involved with a gang of punks and who turns out to be key to the murder of Adam Aftenbakke, as well as those involving the judge, the policeman and the journalist. Vari gives us his opinion of some of the events. He cannot understand, for example, all the rules involved in crossing a road and is not very impressed with 20th century Danish justice. It is a wonderful novel or, perhaps, a wonderful pastiche of a novel, with Madsen twisting and turning and leaving us guessing with improbable plot manoeuvres and characters turning out to be different from what we had expected. Sadly, the novel is long since out of print in English and not all that easy to get hold of but, if you do, you will certainly enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published by Gyldendal in 1976
First published in English by Garland in 1992
Translated by James M Ogier