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Jan Kjaerstad: Forføreren (The Seducer)
This is the first book in a trilogy about Jonas Wergeland, a TV documentary producer. While women are certainly attracted to him, not least, as the narrator tells us, because of his quite exceptional, penis, and he to them, the title refers more to his general charm with all people rather than just with women.
Wergeland has made his name making documentaries about famous Norwegians. He has a special style. Firstly he focuses on a place that is important in their life. If the place happens to be in Norway, he finds one that is abroad, not least because he can then get a free trip to an exotic place he had not previously visited at Norwegian TV’s expense. Halfway, through the programme, he will interview an actor playing the character, with the actor dressed like the character but Wergeland is dressed in modern style. All of this has given him huge fame in Norway.
However, the books starts with Wergeland returning home from Seville, clearly very much enjoying being back in the familiar surroundings, which he clearly loves. However, when he gets home he finds his wife, dead on the sitting room floor. The book is not told in chronological order so we do not learn any more till later.
We learn some of the influences on him, as a child. His best friend was a girl, Nefertiti. It was Nefertiti who taught him that women are, first and foremost, teachers, then mistresses – and above all that when you come right down to it, the female is a very different and, more to the point, a much more fascinating creature than the male. A key experience is when she takes him into inner Østfold to look for his aunt and he learns some valuable lessons from her, lessons he would not have learned from another boy.
Another interesting influence is Uncle William or, as Jonas, his brother, Daniel, and sister, Rakel, refer to him, Sir William, because of his fine clothing. Sir William had worked for the Norway aid agency in Africa and had seemingly profited from it, as he has a fine house and looks down on Jonas’ father, whom he always calls our kid. The three siblings despise both Sir William and his three children, also two boys and a girl. (The girl, Veronika, will come to be the person Jonas most hates in life and she will play a role in his life.) Jonas does despise Sir William and is happy when Rakel plays a nasty trick on him but, at the same time, he has a grudging admiration for his financial success.
This issue also introduces us to another key character – the narrator. We do not now who s/he is but we do know s/he is not Norwegian as s/he tells us so. The narrator mocks various people, Sir William, in particular and, of course, tells us about Jonas’ appendage. However, in particular, s/he mocks Norway, pointing out that Norway is the sixtieth largest country in the world when you consider its landmass but when you add its continental shelf, which has given it is oil wealth, it is the eleventh largest country and has massively benefited from this, perhaps undeservedly. Norway has been able to rake in the fruits of the rest of the world without – and this is the amazing thing – armed intervention and the Norwegian people so clearly turned into a nation of spoiled children, to the point where they have utterly lost sight of one of the most important facets of human nature: a sense for the tragic. This is certainly not the only time the narrator will mock Norway. Indeed, I must say that I found the narrator by far the most interesting character in the book, because of the continual mockery and side comments s/he makes on the various characters.
Jonas has a lot of adventures, from filming on top of the Pyramids (an almost unheard of privilege) to almost being killed by Tuaregs and only being saved by Thor Heyerdahl, from almost being run down, while he is in a drifting lifeboat, by a large ferry while talking about Gielgud playing Hamlet, to saving the person he hates most from being drowned in the Zambezi rapids, from almost being eaten by a polar bear to almost being killed in a terrorist attack in Oslo, from curing himself of lung cancer to bringing about peace in the Middle East.
One thing he has learned from one of his gurus is about the wave potential of human beings, about all the things we are but which we do not exploit because they seem so hard to fathom. Jonas knows that anything is possible, even the most unlikely things, when human beings have the muscle power to leap over a house, a fact which has been proved scientifically, in other words: the potential is there.
He also learns a lot from the women in his life that that he was many people and the women he met merely helped him, by dint of a sort of hook-up, to give vent to these other sides of his character – including those he had not been aware of before.
The narrator mocks the Norwegian attitude to sex (I think it might be as well to express, once and for all, my wonder at how touchy Norwegians are when it comes to sex). Despite that we learn about Jonas’ magic penis, as the narrator calls it. We learn how various women enjoy it and how his Aunt Laura was passionately obsessed with the male organ.
As mentioned, for me the most interesting character is one who plays no role in the story except to narrate it, not least because of the various comments s/he makes on Norwegians, life and the various characters. Jonas himself certainly has lots of interesting adventures and yet there is something about him that seems to be missing. In many cases (though certainly not all) things seem to happen to him rather he initiating them. For example, we are told he had twenty-three lovers. In all the cases that we see, it is the woman who initiates them. Indeed, on first meeting, she has his clothes off (and hers as well) and is enjoying his magic penis in no time. This may, of course be Kjaerstad’s personal fantasy, having a sexy woman taking the sexual initiative, or it may be because Jonas is simply hesitant when it comes to taking action.
In other cases, not involving sex, he often tends to dither before taking action. At times this has limited consequences though it can and could have had disastrous consequences.
This is not to say that he never takes the initiative. He certainly does. For example, when all the lefties are focussing on Vietnam, Jonas goes to the roof of the school and raises the Comoros flag and then challenges his left-wing friends as to why they defend Vietnam and ignore the plight of the Comoros.
One annoying technique Kjaerstad uses is to start telling a story and then leaving us hanging, before coming back to it later. He does this on numerous occasions. The prime but by no means only example is the murder of Jonas’ wife. He finds her dead at the beginning of the book. Throughout the book, we will return to Jonas in the flat with the corpse. He looks at his mail, examines the body, checks to see if any paintings have been stolen but does not ring the police. Is this part of his indecisiveness?
For the reader, or, at least, for this reader, one of the best points of this book are the many stories we get. Defending his programmes while on TV he says They are stories. And stories don’t convey a moral, they don’t teach, they provide an experience, they get under our skin, become part of us, like genes, and like genes they can be used for good or evil and Stories are not about what is good or evil, but about good and evil. A story embodies both aesthetics and ethics in a sort of complementarity. This certainly applies to this book. You will learn a lot about a few famous Norwegians and also about Jonas and his life and travels.
First published 1993 by Aschehoug
First English publication in 2003 by Arcadia/Overlook Press
Translated by Barbara Haveland