Erlend O. Nødtvedt: Vestlandet [Westland]
When I had my Norway reading marathon early in 2022, I was able to show that quite a few excellent Norwegian novels have been translated into English. However, there are quite a few excellent Norwegian novels which have not made it into English. Some of these untranslated-into-English novels, however, have been translated into German. One such novel I mentioned was the novel I am now reviewing, published thanks to small German publisher Die Brotsuppe and translator Matthias Friedrich. It is to be hoped UK/US publishers pick up on some of these novels and publish them in English.
I have always been fascinated by road films and books, though tend to associated them with the wide open spaces of the United States, not least because I have twice crossed the US by road, once by Greyhound Bus when young and once by car when somewhat older and better-off. This book is a road book but Jack Kerouac or Vanishing Point it is not.
A quick word about the title. The original Norwegian refers to the region of Norway in the West of the country. The Wikipedia article linked translates it as Western Norway which seems bland and more a generic term rather than a specific region (though one which has no official status). West Country, at least for English people, refers to the south-western counties of England, so I have opted for the mildly exotic Westland, though it may, for some British people, recall Westland Helicopters, which was involved in a political scandal many years ago.
Our story is a road trip and involves the author, the writer Erlend O. Nødtvedt, and the artist Yngve Pedersen. The pair make the standard literary odd couple. They are driving Pedersen’s battered old Ford Camry from Bergen to Lærdal. Pedersen smokes like a chimney. Both drink heavily and doubtless break Norwegian drink-driving laws. They have two aims. The first is to connect with the spirit of Westland and we will learn more about what that is as we go along.
Their second aim involves Anders Lysne. Anders Lysne was a farmer who led a peasants’ revolt against the occupying Danes when, in addition to compulsory work on the roads, the people of the region were also expected to do military service from which hey had been exempted. Lysne was captured by the Danes and beheaded in Bergen. Our heroes are taking his skull, carefully stored in a waterproof bag, and plan to rebury it in Lærdal, Lysne’s home town. They variously refer to the skull as the symbol and mascot of their expedition. It is clear that it represents their (and Westland’s) opposition to authority, the government and officialdom as well as the spirit of Westland. It takes on a huge importance as rarely do more than a few pages pass till we have more information about Lysne’s life, his death, his era and about the skull bouncing around in the back of the Camry.
The Westland region is apparently the rainiest region in Europe and that becomes an issue. Firstly, of course, it is difficult driving in pouring rain. Secondly, it means landslides, floods, roads and tunnels closed. This becomes a problem for them. They have a bit of thing about tunnels, being somewhat scared of them and pointing out that they would not have existed in Anders Lysne’s day. We see a variety of workers around the area, dealing with the problems. As Yngve asks at the end Is it possible that we did not know what rain really is?
In one case they risk going through a tunnel though it is technically closed to the public and end up getting stuck, as it is closed at the other end. They are rescued by a lady herding some fairly frightening goats and even end up with a goat in the car (yes, it is that sort of book). It is not their only close encounter with the local fauna.
As well as transporting the skull back home, part of their journey seems to be visiting the sights. These include various oddities in the area but also visiting various Norwegian celebrities. Indeed, a key part of the book seems to be meeting these people, some of whom just seem to turn up. We start with Olav H. Hauge, a translator and poet, who in fact died when Nødtvedt was ten, though Erlend nevertheless manages to speak to him on the phone (though as he points out, Hauge obviously would not have a smart phone).
They go to a house which seems to have been his and has long since been abandoned. Continuing their criminal activities, they break into the cellar where they find shelves stacked with books, often rare ones, and bottles of cider. They gorge on both. They will meet a variety of other people – writers, artists, musicians – most of whom I have not heard of. However, they do try to seek out Jon Fosse, as they need to speak to him but he seems quite elusive. They eventually track him down and even try a bit of blackmail (yes, it is that kind of book). Quite a few Norwegian writers are from Westland and therefore praised. There is one exception: Thure Erik Lund, the only Eastlander who is a Westlander. (Our translator Matthias Friedrich has translated him into German. He has not been translated into English).
Yngve is an artist and he will sketch/paint the sights as he goes along. Fjords and mountains feature heavily but so do people. He does not mention much about artists but he is inspired by this painting, helped by the fact that one of the farms in the painting belonged to the Norwegian poet Per Sivle. Ingve will paint a picture based on the two people and horse in the bottom right of the painting.
One interesting local they meet is Larine Litlenova, a survivalist, who may or may not have connections wth the Westland Liberation Front, which may or may not exist. With him they discuss returning to the good old days, tearing down bridges and bringing back ferries, no tarmac roads and roads must be small and, basically stopping everything Oslo-Norway considers progress. The one enemy is Eastern Man. He is the representative of the government, officialdom and the Eastern part of Norway and must be stopped at all costs. He is seen both as a bogeyman, some sort of anthropomorphic monster as well as a system, to which all Westlanders are opposed.
There is music, of course. All good road books and films have a soundtrack. There is even a Spotify playlist, consisting almost entirely of Norwegian music I have never heard of but with one British band, inevitably The Fall. The late Mark E. Smith would have been proud.
I have mentioned three heroes in this book: Erlend, Yngve and Anders Lysne, both living and his skull. As this is a road book it would be unfair to omit their Toyota Camry. It is, of course, highly unsuitable for travelling the roads of Westland but their nicotine-yellow, Texas imported, 1986 Camry does sterling work given the condition. They have nicknamed it Rosinante, a reference to one of the earliest road novels. It breaks down, it loses a windscreen wiper, it makes noises, it leaks, it has close encounters with two large animals but it more or less gets them there. Indeed, Erlend says at the end that he probably only wrote this book to immortalise the Camry.
I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. It mixes wacky humour with some serious issues. The two men are serious intellectuals but they are also definitely not mainstream. They break the law, they take risks, they drink far too much, they do things that most of us would hesitate to do. However, they are concerned about the rights of man, about art in the broadest sense, about freedom and justice. Above all in this book , they explore the spirit of Westland, Yngve paints, Erlend writes, they meets writers, artists, musicians, survivalists and they honour the spirit of the great Anders Lysne, whom I had never heard of and now know a lot about. I can only hope some enterprising British/US publisher publishes this book in English.
First published in 2017 by Aschehoug
No English translation
First published in German in 2022 as Durch das Westland by Die Brotsuppe
Translated by Matthias Friedrich
Between the Map and the Terrain, a detailed review of the book by Ellen Rees
Interview with translator Matthias Friedrich about tar book (in Norwegian)