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Tomas Tranströmer, Den stora gåtan (The Great Riddle)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2004. ISBN: 9100103101

Reviewed by John Hewish in SBR 2005:1

One cannot leaf through many issues of Swedish Book Review since its inception in 1983 without encountering the name of Tomas Tranströmer. He has produced a volume of poetry every 3-4 years since 1953 and if any Swedish poet can be said to be familiar to British readers it is he, with many translations and a volume of Selected Poems including some prose from Bloodaxe. There have been excerpts from his prose autobiography Memories (SBR 1993:1) and a lively, if not acrimonious, debate on different approaches to translating him into English, (SBR 1988:2 and 1989:2). This latest slim – very slim – volume consists of five rather enigmatic short poems and eleven groups of haiku containing from just one poem up to six. At a single haiku to a page, they do not lack the emphasis that the form demands. This minimalist traditional Japanese form has been favoured by Tranströmer before. Of the longer poems, Namnteckningar (Signatures) suggests death and judgment: “Jag måste kliva/ Över den mörka tröskeln./ En sal./ Det vita dokumentet lyser...” (I must stride/ Over the dark threshold./ A room./ The white document glows...) Needless to say, Tranströmer meticulously observes the three-line form of 5-7-5 syllables, with the final line as a sort of “clincher” or reflection on the foregoing. The haiku has affinities with the epigram or even the joke, but needs a master hand to avoid tweeness or triteness. (Does the Reader’s Digest still run that section, “Towards a More Picturesque Speech”?). These are generally engaging but the link, logic or point can be elusive. I liked: “Tankar står stilla/ Som mosaikplattorna/ i palatsgården.” (Thoughts stand still/ Like tessarae/ In the palace courtyard.) Perhaps it is fair to say that Tranströmer’s pieces of netsuke improve with keeping. Yet, while it may be insular pragmatism, I can't help remarking on what seems to me the great subjectivity, tending to solipsism, of recent Swedish poetry. Thinking of such well-loved modern English poems as Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings, or Churchgoing, they are narrative, capable of synopsis – this is a characteristic I miss. Perhaps the North tends to extreme introspection. Such generalisations are risky for a non-native. Was it Robert Frost or Nabokov who said that the poetry is what is lost in translation? I shall be pondering the significance of Tranströmer’s Riddle for some time.

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