Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113025308
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2011:1
Ever since his debut in 1998 with a short story collection entitled Fältstudier(Field Studies), Törnqvist has been fancied as a bit of a phenomenon, an eclectic voice and writer of noteworthy gifts in the field of short fiction. The suspense continued to build with his second collection Lövsågare, innerkurva (Fretsawer, Inside Bend, 2003) again highlighting his preoccupation with the narrow world of forestry, Småland and rural backwaters. He reputedly spent seven years writing his first novel: Kioskvridning 140 grader (Kiosk Rotation 140 Degrees). The story opens with a group of idlers lying in the grass by a dam, downstream from the soon-to-beclosed chair factory, engaged in a meandering debate including some thoughts on the nature of reality: ‘ “If absolutely everything is meaningless,” she said. And in the same moment felt her thought forming itself round something solemn. “– then that is the meaning. Some plan wi’ it. And then it aint completely meaningless anyway.”’ This observation is made by Pjäta, a girl so pale (we are informed) that she merges with the grass. ‘Luckily she had blue lips, so you could make her out’, the narrator adds, thus defining another distinct Törnqvist quality: a persistent linguistic jauntiness and undertone of not really taking anyone seriously. If Törnqvist’s characters had the opportunity of occasionally reaching out from the page and slapping their creator, I think they might. The group of ‘not-quite-fully-grown philosophers’ notice Tudor approaching on his bicycle. They greet him with a shrill cry: ‘Tudor! What’s the meaning of life?!’ Not exactly the sort of question one imagines a typical group of unemployed factory workers, hobos or even drunken undergraduates would be discussing, but never mind, the operative point here is that this is a work of fiction in which the author’s presence overrules everyone and everything, including reality. His intentions seem both comic and profound in scope – one of the most difficult combinations, which must necessarily lean one way or the other. Hasse Alfredsson, for instance, would have written some of the interludes of Kioskvridning 140 grader superlatively well, with less clutter and more laughs. Törnqvist is by turns both serious and witty, like a modern-day William Cobbett on mescaline. Many readers’ blogs have registered confused reactions. Sigrid Nurbo (www.dagensbok.com) referred to Kioskvridning 140 grader as a ‘great workers’ novel in a new format’, adding laconically: ‘Pity it wasn’t quite to my taste.’ In fact while Kioskvridning 140 grader has some political and social dimensions, it is far more an intellectual and urban work speculating upon the world by oblique and often archaic reference. Its allusion to Harry Martinson’s Vägen till klockrike (The Road) in the closing section is a literary borrowing that depends more on form than content. Martinson, after all, was writing at a time of rural poverty, when vagrants criss-crossed the countryside in pursuit of temporary jobs. Nor is Törnqvist’s Västra Härad of Småland a fully conceived place, in the sense of Mikael Niemi’s Tornedal. It is, however, an idiosyncratic and imaginative construction that exists very vividly in the author’s mind. The opening fifty pages include descriptions of gnomes, nuthatches, crazy old women in cottages and other off-beat locals, one of whom (named Brighton) notes the formation of some kind of gristle on his scalp. His friends enlist a forester (also a onetime chair factory worker and amateur taxidermist) to make him a medicinal hood of home-made rubber. Later it is removed at the hospital and Brighton’s scalp is found to be sorely infected underneath. And thus the novel unfolds,although ‘novel’ seems a misnomer for material only really held together by the spine of the book. Åsa Beckman of Dagens Nyheter asserts that ‘…Törnqvist spends too much time circulating among the local eccentrics of the area…’ It is difficult not to agree. This book, though filled with ingenious episodes and gems both quotable and succulent (‘Capitalists are just Stalinists with well-pressed trousers’), somehow fails to make its point. It is overly baroque, frenetic and piecemeal. Annina Rabe in Svenska Dagbladet reminds us of Gunnar Ekelöf’s 1949 review in BLM (Bonniers Litterära Magasin) of Martinson’s Vägen till klockrike in which Ekelöf admitted that although he did not fully understand the novel’s surrealistic passages, it was nonetheless ‘a great work offering an enormous amount, in the face of which a critic must feel the futility of so briefly doing it justice.’ While Annina Rabe feels this may also apply to Törnqvist’s novel,she appears to be looking for a polite way of expressing her misgivings. My conclusion is more direct: this novel has some moments of brilliance which readers will relish, but on the whole it frustrates on account of its uneven narration and frequent descent into whimsy.