The spiral of catastrophe
Seldom has anyone written anything so insistent and impassioned, so glowing hot and ice-cold, so heartfelt and so cynical
By Klaus Rothstein
Jakob Ejersbo is one of those figures in Danish literature who died young. He was only 40. His break-through came in 2003 with his novel Nordkraft (‘Nordkraft’), in which he presents a group of hashheads and drug addicts in Denmark’s fourth largest city, Aalborg. After this he did not live to publish anything else, but his large-scale three-volume prose work has now appeared, which takes the reader to Tanzania in particular, where Jakob Ejersbo himself lived for several years prior to the novel’s timeframe, which extends from 1982 to 1986. And seldom has anyone written anything so insistent and impassioned, so glowing hot and ice-cold, so heartfelt and so cynical.
The trilogy consists of three elements – novel, Eksil (‘Exile’), followed by stories, Revolution (‘Revolution’), followed by novel, Liberty (‘Liberty’). And do notice the titles! They have a raw power and in-built drama that are perfectly justified by the destinies and events contained in the books. Yet the titles are not bound by time or place, by language or nation or skin colour. They express a set of fundamental conditions and longings of human existence.
In 'Exile', Samantha is daughter of an alcoholic mother and an emotional redneck, a unfaithful and violent father, whose idea of child-rearing involves hitting his daughters without cause or warning. The family is English, resident in Tanzania, where they run a hotel, which in reality is just a cover for the father’s murky jobs as mercenary and arms smuggler across the continent.
While the 15-year-old daughter is at boarding school several hundreds of kilometres from home, the mother spends her time downing Sundowners one after the other and at all times of the day, while the father has it off with anything that has a pulse (to use Samantha’s expression). The parent’s marriage falls apart, and the mother travels back to England. But mother and daughter do not have the same homeland, for Samantha has grown up in Africa and feels more black than white. ‘I am grey inside,’ she reveals. Wherever she is, she does not quite belong. She is in permanent exile – not least an inner exile of confused identity with no faith in the future. She neglects her schooling, lies and cheats, drinks and experiments with drugs. The spiral of catastrophe begins to turn.
In the first line of the novel Samatha looks up at the light on the water’s surface as she swims over the sandy seabed. In the final line her grave is filled in in one of the most brutally felt climaxes I can remember reading. As is shown by the cyclical construction from first to last line – from water and life to earth and death – Jakob Ejersbo was a deliberate and original writer, who was not only able to maintain an artistic overview of the antipoetry of existence but was also capable of describing it in finely narrated and captivating language. ‘Exile’ is an electrifying novel, and its final chapter – which gives the novel its name – shocks the reader as a shattering highpoint of modern Danish literature.
The stories in ‘Revolution’ are a direct extension of ‘Exile’, and Samantha continues to leaves her mark. Once again we are in Tanzania (though not only there), and it is still extremely ugly and violent though at the same time full of dreams and longing. In Nattevagt: Helsinki (‘Night duty: Helsinki’) we meet a Finnish guy who has a past in Tanzania, the white negro, Jakob Ejersbo’s alter ego. He works as a petty criminal and philosophising nightwatchman:
‘Helsinki is white. Snow and skin. The university is shit. Philosophy. Kant, Hebel, Schopenhauer. Big thoughts, ideas – but the world... No, the world; people – we are the same. People are neither good nor evil – they are opportunistic. It isn’t as I thought it was before – that I was on my way to step out on a new path through my life, something that was true. I walk in well-trodden footsteps. I do not shine. I shadow. Why? An action cannot be good. Utopias are utopias. Humanists standing shouting at everyone else that they have to behave and then the world will be good. Fascism in sheep’s clothing. The philosophers. Humbug. I still have to eat, shit, sleep. Reading is worth nothing next to experience. Words are the dust with which our flesh must be united. And inside me the reptile brain lies in wait. It is only interested in three things: sex, food and power.’
The title of the collection does not originate from any title story. It is a code, a collective symbol for the shocks that mark the dream-hunters of these stories. 'Revolution' presents Jakob Ejersbo as a writer of prose who is at once unromantic and full of tenderness, in love with and obsessed by Africa, sensitive to the continent’s narratives of destiny, humanist and critical towards the racist deposits inside our heads, and this makes him stand out as a unique white black in Danish literature, related to the mixed people of the stories who appear as a patchwork of religions and cultures, habits, languages and colours, some Greenland, some Denmark, some Africa, some black, some white, a host of foreign and forever exiled…
Translated by John Mason