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THE CONQUEROR by Jan Kjærstad Kirkus Star


by Jan Kjærstad and translated by Barbara Haveland

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-934824-03-0
Publisher: Open Letter

From Norwegian novelist and short-story writer Kjærstad, a gloomy investigation of how the past spills into the present, and why otherwise nice Norwegians would be moved to murder. This book is the second volume in the Wergeland trilogy.

Back in the day, Jonas Wergeland was an inquisitive student, brilliant, capable of speculating that “Dante’s observations on the celestial spheres, based on Ptolemy’s theories, were at least as right or wrong as the theories about the universe with which he was confronted in his astrophysical studies.” Alas, it’s the here and now, and Jonas is a television personality, the most popular in all of Norway. The here and now doesn’t always agree with him; when we meet Wergeland, early in the pages of this sprawling postmodern whodunit, our hero, breast-obsessed (“it’s a long story altogether, that of men and breasts”) and bewildered, is being copiously sick, feeling “as if he were spewing over Oslo, over the whole of Norway, in fact.” Wergeland has reason to feel ill over the course of much of this novel, and it’s not just from all the aquavit; his wife, Margrete, has been shot dead in the first volume of the trilogy, The Seducer, and all fingers point at him. Ironically titled, The Conqueror finds Wergeland on trial for murder, and, more than that, being examined by a curious biographer who hits hard walls at every turn in the maze that is Wergeland’s life. “For so it is,” writes Kjærstad, “even though life is lived forward, it is always understood backward.” Kjærstad takes the occasion of Wergeland’s pickle to ponder the meaning of memory, reality, justice, sex and being Norwegian (“To be a Norwegian is to express indignation at an unfair distribution of the assets that a society has created collectively”), all in elegant prose shot through with puckish humor—and leaving off on a cliffhanger that will await the third volume in the trilogy (titled The Discoverer, it will be published in the United States by Open Letter in 2009) for resolution.

Think of it as Kafka-meets-Billy Connolly, and you’re almost there. Sly, intelligent and a pleasure for fans of philosophically inclined literature.