The Fascist's Revenge
Monday, December 10, 2007
By Jo Nesbo
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Harper. 519 pp. $24.95
The publisher of Jo Nesbo's "The Redbreast" reports that it was voted "Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written" by members of Norwegian book clubs. I am not qualified to comment on that judgment, nor will I venture any dumb jokes about it, but will say that this is a fine novel, ambitious in concept, skillful in execution and grown-up in its view of people and events. In important ways it's also a political novel, one concerned with the threat of fascism, in Norway and by implication everywhere. All in all, "The Redbreast" certainly ranks with the best of current American crime fiction.
Nesbo's story begins with the fascism of World War II, when Vidkun Quisling's puppet regime ruled in Norway and thousands of young Norwegians volunteered to serve alongside German troops. After the war ended, many of those soldiers who returned to Norway were called traitors and sent to prison, and spent the rest of their lives embittered by this "betrayal." Early in the novel, we see several Norwegians fighting under terrible conditions at Leningrad in 1942-43. Some are killed or wounded, and the fate of others is unclear. These wartime scenes alternate with a present-day plot that shows neo-Nazis in Oslo. One is on trial for a vicious, unprovoked attack with a baseball bat on a Vietnamese restaurant owner. This skinhead makes ugly speeches in the courtroom ("Those of you who are trying to pretend that there is not a racial struggle going on here are either blind or traitors") and is freed on a technicality.
A detective named Harry Hole watches in disgust. A troublemaker like all good fictional detectives, Harry discovers that someone has smuggled into Norway a Maerklin, one of the most powerful and expensive rifles ever made. We know, although Harry does not, that the young skinhead he saw in court helped obtain the rifle for an old man who is dying of cancer. The old man is one of the soldiers from Leningrad. We learn that he is a bitter-end fascist, but we don't know whom he proposes to kill. The old man's cancer can be taken as a symbol of Nazism itself, as when he reflects, "He did his best not to think about cells dividing and dividing and dividing." Norway's neo-Nazi cells also are dividing.
Several people are killed. We meet aging veterans of the Eastern Front, but don't know which is the killer. We also meet a police official who secretly works with the neo-Nazis, and a senior official of the Foreign Office who's a closet fascist. This vain diplomat uses his status to force himself on young women, after which he makes I-am-superman speeches to them: "Our lifestyle demands of us that occasionally we have to be brutal, and this brutality requires strength." All this unfolds smoothly. We often don't know what's happening -- has this man changed his name? did that soldier survive or die? -- but we want to know, and we have clues to lead us on. Nesbo's writing is straightforward but with nice touches here and there. A soldier's head "hung like a snapped dandelion between his narrow soldiers." Harry sees "a white cloud scud across the sky like a passing doubt."
The end of the book, as Harry races to stop the old man from carrying out his assassination, recalls the suspenseful ending of "The Day of the Jackal." And the fact that Nesbo is able to make us understand, almost sympathize with, one crazy, homicidal old Nazi is itself an achievement. Not many novelists try to humanize Nazis. Nesbo did some of his research close to home: His father, at age 18, was one of the Norwegians who fought at Leningrad.
My only objection to the book is one I have about a good many novels. It has to do with names. In this case they're Norwegian, but that's not the problem. The problem is that two of the soldiers are named Gudeson and Gudbrand -- and, after 500 pages, if you put a gun to my head, I still couldn't tell you which is which. Two villains, 50-odd years apart, are Brockhard and Brandhaug. Other characters are named Signe, Sindre and Sverre. And there are policemen named Moller and Meirik and an old soldier named Mosken. The mind reels. Having written novels, I know that dreaming up names can drive you nuts, but coping with all-too-similar names can do the same to readers. I think Nesbo could have treated us with a bit more consideration, name-wise.
That aside, "The Redbreast" is an admirable meditation on how, generation after generation, the ugliest human instincts manifest themselves in a criminality that calls itself politics.