For the coming few weeks, I am staying in the Nordic area, as I will virtually travel to all the major countries of old and new Scandinavia through their literature. I guess that betrays my bias towards these particular countries.
From Iceland, I have now moved to Norway, with Erlend Loe’s Doppler. The tagline on the book cover says “An elk is for life… not just for Christmas.” So, it seems like another off-season read for me, like Butterflies in November. Indeed, the story in Doppler starts in November as well.
But hey, what makes a summer read? No one says it has to be ‘summery’. These ‘wintry’ books make me dream of colder weather. It’s one of my ways of coping with the heat.
Check out my review of this book and don’t forget to take a look at the other reviews, so far, from my themed challenge Around Europe in 14 Books.
Read the previous posts:
Around Europe in 14 Books – #3: Norway
Doppler by Erlend Loe
Original name: Doppler
Author: Erlend Loe
Translators: Don Bartlett & Don Shaw
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Series: Doppler #1
Genre: philosophical, humour
Location: Oslo (city and forest), Norway
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Once, Doppler lived in a nice house and went to work every morning in his Volvo. The, shortly after his father died, he left his job, his home and his family, and went to live in the forest.
For a while, Doppler is strangely content. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and he finds companionship in the form of a tenacious baby elk named Bongo.
But over time, others are attracted to their simple way of life. Doppler is joined by his young son (who quickly goes into daytime television withdrawal). Düsseldorf – a depressed miniature-soldier enthusiast – sets up camp nearby and is followed by an obnoxious right-wing dog walker. Even Doppler’s pregnant wife pays the occasional conjugal visit.
And with every convert to his new life in the woods, the existence that Doppler foresaw – alone, in the forest, with his elk – is disappearing…
Compelling and perceptive, Doppler is a deeply subversive fable from one of Norway’s best-selling writers.
The only Norwegian author I’ve ever read before was Per Petterson. Erlend Loe, however, has been sitting on my bucket list for the last couple of years, with the novel Naive. Super. That’s Loe’s first success on both the Norwegian and the English-speaking scene, and that was the book I was going for until I discovered Doppler, the story of a grown-up man who abandons his city life to live in complete isolation in a forest. Isolation… forest… I immediately thought that’s an ideal book for me.
The narrative starts in medias res. We see straight away that the eponymous protagonist is already a forest dweller and he’s intent on hunting down an adult elk for food. He succeeds in doing so, but the elk’s calf sticks around and doesn’t want to go away. So Bongo (that’s how he’ll be named) becomes the best, or rather the only, pal of the misanthropic Doppler.
But how did this man end up living in the forest? Until six months before, he was a normal man, with a normal job and a normal family consisting of a wife and two children. One fine spring day, he is out cycling and tumbles down the path that leads to the forest. Laying there, badly bruised, he has sort of an epiphany. The rush of everyday sounds and thoughts pass through him. To hell with annoying children’s TV shows’ songs which his son loves, to hell with interior design problems. He thinks about his father, who has just passed away and whom he didn’t know very well. Then, he thinks about a conversation he has had with his teenaged, LOTR-fanatic daughter in which she pointed out a truth about him: that he doesn’t like people. After this revealing moment, it doesn’t take too long for him to resign from his job and settle in a tent in the forest.
Doppler adapts well to the forest life and feels that he’s closely connected to nature. He even engages himself in conversations with Bongo the elk (that is, in monologues). He often sounds like a hippie. However, he cannot completely detach himself from society and from what he left behind in the city. After adopting Bongo, he can’t bring himself to kill another elk. He still needs food, though, especially a load of sugar because he can’t go on without it. So he occasionally goes down to old Düsselfdorf’s house and steals berries and jams (after all, he has given up being nice), until the victim realises what is happening and installs an alarm.
Doppler also needs milk. Skimmed milk, to be precise. Despite hating people, he still appreciates modern human achievements. This desperate need leads him to a trip to the ICA supermarket and succeeds in striking a deal with the manager by bartering elk meat with a supply of milk and food. Advocating for the return of the barter system is only one of the ways by which he comments on modern life and consumerism. Yet it is undeniable that he’s placed between his idealistic life and reality: he would like to cut off all ties and he continuously justifies every his action, but he is not able yet of detaching himself completely. Even more so when he casually meets his wife at ICA and she tells him that she got pregnant from one of her occasional conjugal visits to his tent. She wants him back home by mid-April (or May… that wasn’t very clear, I don’t know if it was an editing mistake) when she’s due.
His plan of a blissful solitary life is further disrupted by more mingling with people. When his wife is off to Rome, he’s obliged to go back to the city to take care of his children, but he eventually takes his four-year-old son to the forest with him. Later he’s joined by a “right-wing reactionary” who, after failing to threaten Doppler, settles in the forest as well and imitates (with poor results) all the protagonist’s actions. There are also old Düsselfdorf (who by now has become his pal) and Toolman Roger (he had tried to rob Doppler’s apartment but they became friends instead). Naturally, Doppler is not happy with this outcome. All this, which happens in the latter part of the novel, reminded me of organised religion and cult formation. Doppler, living on his own in the forest and engaging in philosophical rambling monologues, looks like a lone lunatic and that seems safe enough. Yet it only takes one other person to believe in what he says and to imitate him – the right-winger who wants to set up a brotherhood of peace – to make it look silly and dangerous.
In any case, I loved all the philosophical musings laden with sarcasm. Loe manages to hit a lot of sore points about consumerism, societal norms and conventions, politics and human nature. Even though the novel was originally published in 2004, many of these issues still resonate today. And they will continue to be valid if things don’t change. Yet Doppler is not just a witty observation of the world. It is also an intimate, inward journey thanks to the theme of fatherhood and existence, as shown by Doppler and Düsselfdorf having to deal with their fathers’ death and by Doppler’s own fatherhood experience. I also loved the character of Doppler. It could have been me, some years ago. Still, it’s quite shocking and annoying to see on paper someone who thinks like I used to think. However, all in all, I did not find his opinions and antics annoying but funny.
It’s a rather absurd tale. Some events are downright crazy. Like, for example, the way Düsselfdorf treats Doppler (a robber) and the way Doppler treats Toolman Roger (another robber). It seems like such out-of-the-norm incidents don’t matter so much. Yes, you can say it’s another quirky read however, it is not quirky just for the sake of it (like I thought Butterflies in November was). The absurdity complements the narrative tone and enables the sarcastic social commentary to come out better. It can sting the reader.
The novel is not divided into numbered chapters, but rather in long, monthly sections, named from November to April and May. So it feels like reading a journal, in a way. The author aptly mixes long and short sentences. Actually, there are a big number of short sentences. That may annoy some readers but I thought it was interesting. What’s genial about the writing is the play on repeated words and sentence structure. I am quoting just one of many examples:
It’s a characteristic trait of Africans that they like to be surrounded by people, by friends and family, whereas I shy away from people, from friends and family, that’s a characteristic trait of mine. (page 48)
It’s this kind of writing, besides the obvious hilarity of the events and the protagonist’s monologues, that made this a highly amusing read. I also thought it’s a good translation, although I did have some doubts about the formatting of this particular edition.
I heartily recommend this book because it’s a fun and – as the tagline on the back cover says – “deeply subversive fable”. This is the kind of Scandinavian off-the-wall novels that I love. And what’s more, this is only the first of a three-book series. As far as I know, the other two books haven’t been translated into English yet and I hope they do so soon because I am curious to know what Doppler’s next move will be.