One of Norway’s most famous writers investigates a strange series of fires not by examining the ashes, but by looking in the mirror.
This is not a crime novel. Except for being labeled a novel, it’s not even clear that this ambitious experiment by European best-seller Heivoll qualifies as anything less than the purest metafiction. The author treats his subject (a series of fires started by a serial arsonist in rural Norway in the 1970s) as a highly complex meditation on the human condition and our collective predisposition to insanity. In fact, Heivoll has created himself as a character, letting himself play the narrator, a successful modern-day writer who was born just before the first blaze. At an Italian literary festival, this character, long estranged from his homeland, falls ill, and his fevered mind transforms the audience into the dead of Finsland, his hometown. And so, Heivoll the narrator launches into the work of exploring those frightening days and nights of fiery destruction. Other segments are sickeningly frightening descriptions of the fires themselves: “The whole room was ablaze,” Heivoll writes in his first chapter. “The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large wounded animal.” Other times, the narrator poetically imagines the firestarter at his work: “He tiptoed in, went to the bathroom and washed, stood for a moment studying some cuts and grazes to his forehead; his fingers still smelled faintly of petrol. His eyes were radiant and the tiredness was gone. There was grass in his hair. He shut his eyes and saw the swallows circling in the smoke under the roof.” It’s revealed early on that the narrator is well-acquainted with the real identity of the madman; he’s just more interested in the question “why?” than whodunit.
Closer in tone to François Traffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player or a Tom Waits song/story than an airport mystery novel.