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Aksel Sandemose: En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks)

If this book had been written in English, it would no doubt be considered a classic. As it was written in Norwegian, it is long since out of print in English translation and quite difficult to get hold of. Such is the fate of translated works in the English-speaking world.

Sandemose’s book is nominally the confession of a man, now married with two children, who, seventeen years ago, killed a man called John Wakefield. He is not particularly remorseful, except for the nightmares it causes him but he feels a need to tell his story. Though we learn early on that he has killed Wakefield, we only learn later on the how and why. More particularly, after over 400 pages, the actual murder is mentioned only peripherally (though it is covered in more detail in an earlier novel, not translated into English). Though this book is about the murder of John Wakefield, it is much more about Jante, his home town in Denmark (Sandemose was born in Denmark) which, at least from the perspective of Espen Arnakke, the narrator of this story and murderer of John Wakefield, may be deemed to be as akin to hell as any town on Earth.

Sandemose tells the story with brief snippets of his pre-John Wakefield life, interspersed with only occasional comments on his later life, including how he met Wakefield, his life as a sailor and his now generally calm life. He gradually paints a picture of Jante and, in particular the Law of Jante, which is both intense and horrific. The Law of Jante, the code that governs the behaviour of Jante’s citizens, is basically one of cruelty and oppression. It is a mock version of the Ten Commandments but its basic principles are that you are not important and better accept this fact right away or you will pay. Sadly, it is still often applicable in Denmark. Though Espen’s parents are generally decent people, his suffering, and the suffering of the other citizens, stems from parents, siblings (particularly elder ones), teachers, the local aldermen, peers, employers (many of the boys start work at the age of eight) and other inhabitants in general. This is not a religious community, though religion plays a role. Indeed, it might be said that its religion is anti-religion.

Sandemose’s writing might be described as religiously intense as any written by a non-believer. He is not writing Oliver Twist or Tom Brown’s Schooldays, where cruelty for its own sake is the norm. The burgers of Jante want conformity at all costs and they will get it. The only ways to escape it are to leave or to die. Sandemose lays it on for four hundred pages, the pettiness, the suffering, the repression, in a way that paints such a bleak picture as to wonder how anyone survives. Of course, he is trying to rationalise why he killed John Wakefield (the nominal reason was jealousy over a girl) so the picture we get of his life in Jante is obviously distorted, as we only get his point of view and he has virtually nothing redeeming to say about the place, except an oblique reference to his sister Agnes and the fact that he seemed interested in his (female) teacher. Everything else is dark and gloomy and Sandemose slaps it on, like one layer paint on top of another, on top of another, with no relief. From the brutality of his older brother, Petrus, to the torments suffered by all employees, young and old, the litany of horrors goes on and on. It’s not fun, but you cannot help but be absorbed in Sandemose’s brilliant writing and the baring of his soul.

Publishing history

First published 1933 by Tiden, Oslo
First English translation by Knopf in 1936