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Brobyggarna Jan Guillou, Brobyggarna (The Bridge Builders)

Pirat,  2011. ISBN: 9789164203199

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2012:1


Brobyggarna is intended as the first of several novels about a family whose history reflects the 20th century in all its grandeur and horror. This volume covers 1901 to 1919, a period of industrial and political expansionism, and of a terrible war. The author knows his craft but, on present evidence, his ambitious project will be flawed by a mix of romance and prejudice. Jan Guillou is a great journalist, but his past novels are rollicking tales of adventure at best, and, at worst, embarrassingly odd.

Brobyggarna is in the ‘adventure tale’ category. As the 20th century begins, three Norwegian boys (the author is halfNorwegian) learn that their father has gone down with his fishing boat. Their loving but stern mother sends them off to the nearby town of Bergen to learn a trade. Lauritz, Oscar and Sverre attract attention because they are good-looking and well behaved and, above all, their technical ability is so remarkable. Benign adults persuade a local charity to fund their education.

They train as engineers in Germany and graduate among the best of their year. Lauritz, an upright, fine character, has been especially successful in his extra-curricular activities: a top cyclist (!), he also woos, in secret, Ingeborg, the beautiful and liberated daughter of a baron. Oscar’s passion for a charming prostitute ends when he realises that she has cheated him out of every penny. Ashamed, he sets out for Africa, where he rises to engineer-in-chief. Sverre, the artistic one, vanishes from the story in this volume: he runs away with a man, and, worse still, an English aristocrat.

Lauritz realises that he alone must meet the expectations of Bergen charity: he returns home to work on Norway’s most stupendous enterprise, a railway line across its mountainous interior. With his love-life on hold, he sets to work and is soon recognised as the best of engineers and of bosses. After six years of dedicated service and adventurous leisure activities, he marries his Ingeborg. By then, he is also a partner in a successful construction firm and so obviously fabulous in every way that Ingeborg’s old-fashioned but fundamentally decent father agrees to her marrying a commoner.

Meanwhile, Oscar also does very well:

not only a superb engineer and manager of men, but an immensely wealthy exporter of African raw materials, a famous big-game hunter and a brave guerrilla leader, he also finds the energy to live an over-heated, erotic dream with a lovely, sexually voracious Burundi princess.

But WW1 disturbs both the African and Norwegian idylls. Lauritz realises that he and his family – he and Ingeborg, by now one of Norway’s first women doctors, have four splendid children – become suspect because of their affiliations with Germany and flee to Stockholm. Oscar joins the Schutztruppen, which spearhead the German campaign to tie up British forces in an East African war, and gets over a noble reluctance to shoot people: the ‘barbaric English’ are the filthiest of oppressors. Regrettably, the barbarians win in Europe and Oscar has only his Iron Cross of the first order to call his own – the rest of his wealth has been consumed in the flames of war.

But all ends well. Oscar and Lauritz are reunited in Berlin and Oscar finds himself suddenly wealthy once more, as a partner in his brother’s construction firm, which is benefiting from a post-war boom. Around them, Berlin is torn apart by political conflict but the Lauritzsons are doing as well ever.

An exciting story, skilfully told, but the reader must be prepared to put up with near-evangelical certainties and implausible, robotic characters. Guillou is a romantic, which can be endearing, but his conviction that handsome, brave and smart men and women form a kind of natural aristocracy sooner or later becomes irritating.


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