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Finn Carling: Oppdrag (Commission)

A boring title should not put you off this book, which is more of Carling’s life of the solitary. The solitary person here is a distinguished and aging (presumably English) novelist, living alone in Corsica with a mangy dog and having difficulties in continuing his writing. He receives an unexpected visit from Penelope Warden, who seems to drop in, even though she lives in England. She asks the novelist (who remains unnamed) to write about her late brother who, apparently, killed himself at a young age. She is clearly very fond of the said brother (Sebastian) – indeed, her fondness seems to go beyond mere sisterly love. Before long, other people drop in to Corsica (or send him a ticket, so he can fly to them as though he were hopping on the local bus). First there is the woman who received the brother’s heart in a heart transplant and now is far more attached to Sebastian (whom she never met in life) than to her husband. His other sister, his brother, his father, his girlfriend all come into the picture as the novelist gradually learns that there was more than meets the eye.

Sebastian’s family is rich but, it seems, Sebastian was uncomfortable with this wealth and helped the under-privileged and may have been a revolutionary. Or not. Maybe he was killed by June, his Chinese girlfriend, either out of her envy for his wealth or for some revolutionary reason. Or maybe he really did commit suicide. The novelist is adamant that he is not going to write the Sebastian book but he is clearly fascinated by the story and wants to find out what happened. Carling tells the story so well that we both share his interest in the story while, at the same time, sharing his sense of isolation, how we (the novelist and the various participants) are essentially cut off from one another (and, for the novelist, even from the dog.) Carling’s life was about isolation and this book superbly reinforces our essential isolation.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1993 by Peter Owen
Translated by Louis A Muinzer