Lindgren's 'Hash': a 107-year-old fabulist

March 28, 2004|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,Sun Staff

Hash, by Torgny Lindgren, (translated by Tom Geddes). Overlook Press. 236 pages. $23.95.

If you were alone in some hut on the frozen tundra of northern Sweden, with only the aurora borealis for illumination and a flask of aquavit for comfort, you might write a novel something like Hash, which refers not to the hallucinogen but to an awful offal dish. Sometimes made from squirrels, spiced with nutmeg to mask its offensive smell, it can be partaken hot, or frozen, then sliced up in slabs. Eating it is a sign of poverty, but in Sweden, at least among the denizens of the north, hash has a certain hallucinogenic quality.

"With Swedish hash," burbles one of Torgny Lindgren's characters, "everything is possible. It is beyond ordered and civilized society. If life has been empty and meaningless and you encounter hash, you have to say to yourself: there is after all some foundation or core or center in the immeasurable infinity of existence. We do not have to give up."

Now, Lindgren, who himself appears in this novel as a consumptive boy who is thankful he does not have to grow up, is a member of the Swedish Academy, and sits on the panel that selects the Nobel Prize for literature. So, he is one serious dude, even if this novel seems, at times, well, pretty silly.

Yes, it is a meditation on death. The whole region in northern Sweden is consumed by tuberculosis. Hash symbolizes the life essence. Lindgren's protagonists go on a quest for the perfect hash, but at the end, that fellow in a long black cloak awaits them with a scythe.

Along this route, we encounter a perfectly symmetrical person and a grotesquely misshapen person, both deadly. We are presented with the spectacle of the fugitive Martin Borman as an itinerant haberdasher with an infinite supply of clothes, which he distributes rather like Jesus with the loaves and the fishes. Now, we have all seen The Producers, but transmogrifying Borman thus would be a stretch even for Mel Brooks. This particular Nazi was so fanatical he sought to have Hermann Goering executed for disloyalty.

Lindgren seems to be the kid who sat tittering in the back of the theater during those appallingly dull but profound Bergman movies.

Did I mention that this novel is, self-consciously a fable? That it is written by a 107-year-old journalist who makes Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair look like pikers? A fellow who invents not individual stories or anecdotes or quotes, but entire regions? After all, hardly anybody visits northern Sweden. Who would know?

"Imagination is my memory," says the old coot.

The gerontologist who examines him comes to "the realization that nothing, absolutely nothing, could be regarded as constant or reliable. Everything, everything in the whole of Creation, was twisted and contorted and even turned into its opposite by the inexorable march of time. ... Decent people were transformed into monsters. Mass murderers lost their memories and became as pious a choirboys ... and the skin of wolves would sprout the soft wool of sacrificial lambs."

Aha.

Mike Leary, the national editor of The Sun and former books editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, first traveled above the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden at age 18. He grew up in the North Woods of Wisconsin, where a favorite saying was, "A thousand Swedes came through the weeds chased by one Norwegian."

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