Fiction - Offally nice

Hash

Torgny Lindgren <em>Duckworth, 236pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0715632647

Torgny Lindgren is a giant of Swedish letters, the winner of various Scandinavian literary prizes and a member of the Swedish committee that decides the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet his work is virtually unknown in Britain. This may be because Lind- gren's habitual style is a patchwork of parodies, dialect and biblical quotations, making it difficult to translate. Furthermore, he is a very provincial writer. Provincialism is often entirely exportable: the most celebrated Nordic writers of the past century (Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Halldor Laxness) returned repeatedly to the mores of small, enclosed communities. But Lindgren's parochialism is of a curious sort. In novels such as Bat Seba (Bathsheba), Ljuset (Light) and Hummelhonung (Sweetness; literally "bee's honey"), his approach is to take venerable traditions of Scandinavian writing and studiously pervert them. He wilfully mixes things up, creating books that move continuously between smallness and largeness, between the "ordinary" and the "significant". Sometimes his novels read like fractured local in-jokes missing a punchline; sometimes they are hilarious, rich and affecting.

Hash is another epic of the parochial. The novel is set in Vasterbotten, a rural region of northern Sweden, in the period immediately following the Second World War. At its centre is the unlikely quest of two characters for the perfect hash. Readers bracing themselves at the prospect of Swedish hippies jostling for a nice fat Rizla need not worry: "hash" is the loose translation of polsa, an unappetising-sounding Swedish delicacy, the central ingredient of which is finely ground meat, usually offal. The dish's other ingredients vary from region to region. Lindgren's hash-hunters tour from one small community to another, from Lillaberg to Lakaberg to Lillholmtrask, sampling the local polsa. Their quest is riddled with mischievous symbolism. Polsa becomes a sort of grail, supplying "consolation, mercy, healing or alleviation". After a good dish of hash, one character says: "I think there's a meaning to everything after all."

Lindgren's polsa-questers are an un-likely pair: a Swedish schoolteacher called Lars Hogstrom, who has recently arrived in a tuberculosis-afflicted village to replace a teacher who died of the disease; and Robert Maser, a travelling cloth salesman who, it transpires, is really the Nazi war criminal Martin Bormann, in flight from Allied justice. As if all that weren't strange enough, the story of their journey is narrated by a 107-year-old former journalist living in a retirement home. He is a faux ingenu who writes compulsively, crafting "an article without beginning or end. Especially without end." In the past, he explains, he was sacked by his editor and told never to write again; in the present, he is pursued by officials from the local council who explain to him that his writing serves no purpose, and that he should therefore stop it.

It is a book full of dark humour (skilfully relayed by the translator, Tom Geddes) as well as pleasing comic inversions. The adults are all in varying states of denial, while the children have a poignant awareness of the realities that confront them. Hogstrom is erroneously convinced that he is immune to TB; the 107-year-old narrator believes he has transcended old age. Meanwhile, the children stare at death with a level eye. One small child with TB calmly discusses his terminal condition with Maser and Hogstrom: "He was grateful, he explained, that he wouldn't have to reach adulthood. He . . . would never have to be stuck alone in the forest eating dried pike . . . And he would never need to wear a broad-brimmed hat."

The blackest inversion of all, however, concerns Maser, the Nazi war criminal, who behaves impeccably throughout, occasionally quoting the Bible or delivering jovial bursts of song, until he is murdered. Comedy Nazis are a risky proposition in fiction, but this one succeeds within the warped logic of the whole.

The novel culminates in irresolution: under orders from the council, the narrator throws out various unanswered questions and then stops writing altogether: "What is going to happen next . . . ? And after that? When that too has happened and been recorded? And so on and so forth." It all makes for a beguiling piece of pseudo-nonsense, an effective mingling of surface clowning and underlying seriousness.

Joanna Kavenna's book The Ice Museum will be published by Viking early next year