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Ernst Brunner, Yngling på guld (Youth on Gold)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789100115562

Reviewed by Kerstin Schofield in SBR 2008:1

A few days before Christmas 2000 an audacious and spectacular raid took place at the National Museum in Stockholm. A gang of armed men managed to steal two small pictures by Renoir, Conversation and Young Parisian Woman, and most importantly, a postcard sized self-portrait by Rembrandt, painted in Leiden around 1630 on copper plate coated in gold leaf and known as Youth on Gold. The thieves made their getaway in a small motorboat from the quay berth at the front of the museum, leaving behind nail carpets, burning cars, shocked museum staff and a police force in confusion.

Ernst Brunner has written a novel about the planning, execution and aftermath of the raid, the creation and subsequent fate of Rembrandt’s picture before its acquisition by the Stockholm National Museum, and the eventual recovery of the stolen pictures in a thrilling police sting operation. He subtitles his book a novel about a crime, a reference to the classic detective stories by Sjöwall-Wahlöö; however, it is more of a fact-based documentary – and fascinating as such – as well as a novel about the artist and what makes a work of sublime art.

The book is thus in three parts; the first is a long (perhaps rather too long) and extremely detailed account which takes us inside the Stockholm criminal underworld among small time crooks, bent lawyers and drug dealers native and immigrant. The miserable life of the uneducated perpetrators conveys a sad bit of social realism, steered by the only sense of value they know, that of money. The stolen pictures are reportedly worth around 400 million Swedish crowns and the idea is to sell them back to the Museum! The comically clumsy preparation of the robbery, incredibly enough, leads to success, but carelessness alerts the police and one of the Renoirs is soon recaptured.

This first part of the book is written in slightly curious annotated documentary prose mixed with the perceived jargon of the criminal classes – all apt to give any fastidious grammarian reader severe palpitations – but nevertheless engages with subtle humour and the extraordinary factual events that unfold.

However, it is in the second part of the book that Brunner the history writer (e.g. Carolus Rex, 2005) comes into his own. In this extraordinarily well researched, vivid and colourful depiction of Rembrandt’s life in Leiden and Amsterdam, we learn in fascinating detail how the artist created his unique masterpiece. There is a meticulous account of the painter’s choice of material, the beating and polishing of the copper plate, the application of egg white as adhesive for the thin layer of gold leaf and finally the painting of the portrait itself. Rembrandt’s image is fixed not only on this small picture but his legend as an artist starts here – he has, according to the diary of a contemporary art critic, performed a miracle. Other paintings follow: we experience the coming into being of works such as The Night Watch and The Anatomy Lesson. When Rembrandt eventually is forced to sell Youth on Gold to a wealthy creditor in whose house it remains packed in a box until the owner’s death, we leave the painter and follow the subsequent travels of the painting from Holland to Paris to Vienna, Geneva and finally to the National Museum in Stockholm – all transactions duly accounted and the various owners vividly presented.

It is rather a rude awakening to be back among the criminals in Stockholm in the third part of the novel. Yngling på guld might well be contrasted to the idiom yngling på glid (youth going astray); the mindless, soulless characters who, in Brunner’s words "cannot tell the difference between a Renoir and a pissoir".

The reader might be forgiven for getting slightly lost in the merry-go-round of police interviews and mobile phone conversations that lead up to the recovery of the stolen pictures, five years after the robbery. There is plenty of suspense, however. In order to circumvent the extraordinary limitations of the Swedish legal system in which the setting of traps, known as "crime provocation", is not allowed to secure convictions, the set-up sale of the stolen goods had to take place in Copenhagen, involving American and Danish police.

In a short laconic note at the end of the novel Brunner reports that the recipients of the stolen pictures, having kept them hidden over the years in various unlikely and – for works of art – very unhealthy environments, have now been completely acquitted. Undue "crime provocation" was proven.

Yngling på guld is now back on the wall in the National Museum. It is said that on a clear day, at a certain time a speck of gold shines through the layers of paint and shows a spark in the eye of the young man. The artist lives.

Kerstin Schofield

Also by Ernst Brunner

Other reviews in SBR 2008:1

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