rating: 4 of 5 stars
Admittedly, it has been a significant amount of time since I have read a “serious” novel: a novel that takes me more than a week to read; a novel I would consider structurally and thematically challenging (but worth the challenge!); and a novel that has been translated from Swedish, at that.
I think I would deem this book “good” in the thought-provoking, challenging, academic sense whether or not it was translated from another language. The structure is unique—a narrator telling a story being narrated by another storyteller. It creates an interesting “voice” paradox, because the overarching voice was always that of the primary narrator, but in the majority of the chapters that told of the life of Jonas Wergeland, the voice had to “coat” and mimic a second narrator’s voice—that of the character recounting the story to the writer. So the chain was thus: the mysterious woman told the story to the professor, who retold it for the readers of the book he was writing, which happens to be the same book the real-world readers are reading, which is consequently written by the real author (Jan Kjaerstad) and “retold” (i.e. translated) by the translator Barbara Haveland. Complicated, no? And yet tremendously fascinating!
Not only was the narrative structure of the novel complexly layered, but the plot of the novel was also arranged in an intricate pattern. The ending was apparent from the beginning—Jonas had killed his wife Margaret, and a professor (the narrator) had been commissioned to tell the tale—but what remained unapparent as the tale of his life unraveled was why it was being told as a mock-defense by a mysterious woman. “Is it possible to change a life by recounting it?” asks the first line of the last fifteen or so chapters. That seems to be the mission of the whole novel—to change the reader’s perspective on Jonas Wergeland’s life, creating one impression and then altering it slightly with a single anecdote about another seemingly unrelated but somehow pivotal event that occurred to Jonas as he matured from a young boy into a middle-aged man.
One of Kjaerstad’s major strengths—or a strength of this particular novel, at the very least—is his ability to find meaning and importance in the smallest, almost mundane details and events. Kjaerstad transforms a simple hockey puck, a silver broach, and a pearl into poignant thematic symbols that recur throughout the novel and have meaning not only to the reader, but to Jonas himself. Another noteworthy skill is Kjaerstad’s ability to make Jonas internalize his actions and observations in ways that take on both immediate and long-range meaning so that they apply both to the scene at hand as well as the overarching structure of the novel. Near-car-crashes, snake sightings, sexual intercourse—all of these affect the immediate story being told within the chapter as well as the overarching tale being constructed by the novel.
These features are all proof of an extraordinary novel. However, The Conqueror would be nowhere nearly as elegant and refined a novel without its exquisite language, and whether this is due to Kjaerstad's original word choice or Haveland’s interpretation, the result is a beautifully crafted, complex novel that is bound to make a lasting impression.
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