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Jerker Virdborg, Mannen på Trinisla (The Man on Trinisla)

Norstedts,  2007. ISBN: 9789113017211

Reviewed by Charles Harrison-Wallace in SBR 2008:1


Jerker Virdborg’s The Man on Trinisla is promoted by Norstedts as a novel, but I’d be more inclined to call it a reading experience, written by a cinema-tographer. Things just happen, and they lack continuity, although we understand by the end that the nominal time-frame is a day and a night. The events described may, or may not, be meaningless. The text is as atmospheric as a steam bath – an inadequate simile, since its setting is in the open air, among holiday-making "yachties", on one of the magical, but bare and rocky islands of Sweden’s west coast, 110 kilometres north of Göteborg. The characters peopling this literary sauna, some of them named but many of them nameless, are not easily discernible. They come and go; disappear into, and emerge from, the interiors of their yachts; go for walks and vanish behind rocks; and are half-heard in the distance or glimpsed sunbathing in various states of undress. The sun beats down with unnatural ferocity during the day. The weather is clear, but perceptions are hazy. One man, in the scenic foreground, does have a name, Johan, but he is not in full focus. He feels dizzy, disturbed and ill at ease, and seems to be entangled in an inexplicably troubled relationship with his wife, Petra.

The book’s chapters alternate between Johan’s stumbling, directionless excursions and staccato conversations with Petra, and the equally aimless, but more juvenile, activities of two young sisters, Lina and Anne. Nothing links Johan and Petra with Lina and Anne. The girls are the daughters of a nameless Papa, who seems to be spending all his holiday time supinely stretched out on a bunk in his boat. It is difficult to be certain of anything that is going on. Events and doings of apparently total insignificance are described with uncanny precision, like close-ups in a wildlife film depicting the habitats of sea-creatures or geological formations. There are mysterious carvings and inscriptions, some from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and others of immemorial origin, to be found on the rock faces and between crevices. The girls find some curious artefacts: something which resembles a watch, small bits of cloth, and objects made of a material which is neither animal, vegetable nor mineral.

To start with I began to think that the man on Trinisla was Johan. However, the two girls encounter another man with an exceptionally furrowed brow, and some time later Johan meets the same person. He may have met him earlier, or noticed his arrival at the island on board a boat with dark red sails; but in any case he can now observe him more closely. The man is short, and dressed in thin, light clothing. He has fair, almost yellow hair; a friendly expression, and sun-browned facial skin, with many wrinkles. His features appear compressed, as if a heavy weight had settled on his forehead and pushed his face down towards his chin. The conversation between Johan and this man is bewildering in the extreme, and very disconcerting for Johan. The man mentions that he is thinking of inviting a group of the "yachties" as guests that evening. His gaze penetrates right through Johan, and well beyond him. Johan leaves him, greatly perplexed.

During the afternoon one of the sisters, who must be the younger of the two, Lina, spots what is clearly the same man, walking straight towards her. She hides, and spies on him, watching what he does. He starts collecting mussels from the shallows, for the evening meal; strips off his shirt, and wades in the water dressed only in a pair of shorts. This man has no name, but, what is more surprising, as Lina discovers while she stares at him, he is also a man with no navel. At this point the old-fashioned reader, such as myself, abandons any further attempt to make rational sense of the text. I am strongly tempted, however, to name the man Adam, as I was told when young that the only man without a navel was the first occupant of Eden. This alien visiting the isle of Trinisla must surely be a time traveller from elsewhere. The dust-wrapper explains that the book is about a meeting between the familiar and the unknown.

At the evening gathering of assorted guests, Johan insults his friendly host for being an infuriating know-all. The scenario slides into one of even greater incoherence than the happenings of the day. Everyone may have got drunk. Does Johan become violent and attack the man with no navel? What exactly happens to Johan’s dinghy, and why are the girls so constantly obsessed with a crab? Although Papa falls seriously ill, and is lifted off by helicopter, no one comes to any real harm. The mental condition of the various visitors, although questionable throughout the time-frame, does not seem to alter greatly from start to finish. The short, fair-haired man probably sails away in his strange boat, though his sails are now white. The narrative stops abruptly, and we assume that the holiday ends, and that everyone else returns to everyday life. There is no explicit tragedy, as there is in Peter Weir’s 1975 film, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Charles Harrison Wallace


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