2012 Books in Translation

Doppler by Erlend Loe

Doppler Translated from the Norwegian by Don Shaw and Don Bartlett

Five words from the blurb: father, live, forest, elk, existence

Doppler is a lovely little book. It gripped me from the very first page and I read the entire thing in a single day. It was unusual in that it was both powerful and entertaining; a rare combination that is difficult to pull off.

The book focuses on Doppler, a man who has become frustrated with the modern world. He has decided to camp in the forest where he tries to lead an existence free from money and the irritations of television and grumpy people.

The novella begins with Doppler killing an elk in order to have something to eat. Unfortunately the elk had a calf, so feeling guilty for killing its mother, Doppler ends up looking after it. But Doppler’s wife is frustrated and wants him to return home in order to look after their children and bring in some money. The interaction between the couple was enlightening. Loe’s skill as a writer meant I had sympathy for both sides of the argument and I think this means it will appeal to a wide range of people, no matter how strong their environmental views.

The writing was simple, but effective and I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. As a parent I understood all the cultural references and this added to my enjoyment:

I spend the entire day enthusiastically humming a melody I can’t place. I’m feeling on top of the world as I cheerfully chip away at the bark on the totem pole. Bits fly off into the forest as I work my way around the trunk, lost in my own world, humming and whistling all the while. Snatches of the lyrics begin to emerge by the evening, and I sing them quite uncritically for quite a time before I realise, in a cold sweat, that what I’m churning out is the signature tune to an Australian TV show, Bananas in Pyjamas. Not even out here in the forest am I spared the poison dart of children’s culture.

The book covered many important themes, including commercialism and our reliance on technology, but it addressed them in an entertaining way. I agreed with Doppler’s thoughts on the simple pleasure of being outdoors and think our society might be a little richer if we all followed some of Doppler’s advice.

The brevity and number of talking points make it the perfect book club choice.

Recommended to anyone looking for a short, entertaining read.


2012 Books in Translation Memoirs

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Death in the Family Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Five words from the blurb: childhood, teenage, Norway, father, death

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a publishing phenomenon in Norway. His controversial fictional memoir has dominated the best seller lists there for the last three years. The discussions about this book intrigued me and so I made a note of the title, keen to read it once the English translation appeared. An unsolicited review copy dropped through my letter box and so I was lucky enough to read this before publication, but it was only once I’d finished reading it that I discovered that this is actually the first of six books, totalling over 3000 pages.

A Death in the Family covers Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood and teenage years. Very little happens, but the writing is so vivid that this doesn’t really matter. I’m normally bored by simple coming-of-ages stories, but the insight and tiny details brought this book to life. I think this is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever come across and I can only imagine the fantastic book he’d produce if the subject matter was more exciting.

The quality of the writing is so good that it is possible to open the book randomly and find a good quote. On top of the realistic portrayal of family life there are thought provoking philosophical questions and advice about being a writer:

You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.

I think this book will have greater appeal to men because they’ll have experienced most of the events and so have the ability to reminisce about their childhood. The masculine outlook on life will be of interest to women, but there wont be the same level of connection.

I wouldn’t knowingly start a 3000 page autobiography about a Norwegian writer, but now that I’ve read the first section I am keen to read the rest. I’m sure that his adult life will contain more complexity than his childhood, but even if it doesn’t I’ll be happy learning about Knausgaard’s outlook on life.

Recommended to anyone who appreciates great writing.


After reading this book the majority of Knausgaard’s family no longer have anything to do with him. You can read more about the controversy surrounding this book here.



2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Chunkster Other Prizes

The Half Brother by Lars Saaybye Christensen

The Half Brother  Translated from the Norwegian by Kenneth Steven

Winner of the 2002 Nordic Prize for Literature
Longlisted for the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2005 IMPAC Award

Five words from the blurb: Norway, epic, family, brothers, life

The Half Brother is an epic, multi-generational story from Norway. The book begins shortly after the end of WWII and follows one family over several decades, concentrating on Barnum and his older brother, Fred, who was conceived during a rape. The brothers are very different in terms of both personality and stature; we see them grow up, learning to cope with their problems.

It is impossible not to develop an emotional attachment to all the characters in this book. They are distinct and realistic – a fantastic achievement given that this involves both sexes and four different generations. But it is the relationship between the two brothers that is the real attraction of this book. It is rare to find a fraternal relationship described with such accuracy and compassion.

The story was simple and easy to read, giving a wonderful glimpse into Norwegian life after the war. Many of the historical events were new to me and I was especially interested to see how the population reacted to the death of their king:

Some of the girls stood in a huddle by the fountain supporting each other. I envied them because they could cry. They were good. I wasn’t. I was bad. I had never seen the playground so quiet before. Nobody laughed. No one threw chestnuts at me. No one called my name. It was a fine morning. It should have been like that every day. It was just the way I wanted the world to be – slow, quiet, and with no jagged edges.

At over 750 pages this is a daunting book to start, but I quickly became hooked. Every page was necessary to the plot and it never dragged. It could be argued that too many tragic events affected this one family, but although the method of death was occasionally a bit unusual, I thought this book was realistic. Light humour was present at the darkest moments, so it never felt depressing.

Details of the family’s secrets were revealed slowly and, although most plot threads were tied up by the end, the reader never knows the whole truth. The atmosphere can be summarised by this quote:

And I remembered what Dad had once said, that it was necessary to sow doubt, because the whole truth was dull and made people lazy and forgetful, whereas doubt never loses its hold.

This is story telling at its best. Highly recommended.