Reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2013:2
Review Section: Fiction: The Past and the Present
Per Olov Enquist makes it clear within the pages of his latest novel, Liknelseboken, that it was not an easy one to write. Despite its subtitle ‘a romantic novel’, he claims never to have been able to write romantic novels, even though Nedstörtad ängel (Fallen Angel, 1985) does bear the same subtitle. Indeed, Liknelseboken could be seen as adding the things that he left out when he wrote the autobiographical Ett annat liv (Another Life, 2008). The central event here, significantly, is the sexual debut of Perola, also referred to as E., the narrator of this book and, as far as one can tell, identical with its author.
The book is very much a meta-novel, with much discussion of the author and his works and of the novel’s form within its pages. Its nine chapters consist of nine parables, corresponding perhaps to the nine leaves torn from the centre of his long-dead father’s poetry notebook. The notebook had recently come into the author’s hands, even though he had long believed, and written in a number of earlier works, that his strongly religious mother had burnt the notebook after his father’s death, while Per Olov was still an infant. To her way of thinking, poetry was sinful. Parables, however, were acceptable.
Enquist also talks of the novel as an attempt to rewrite the speech he made at his mother’s funeral, filling in what he felt were gaps. He abandons this attempt and comes instead to consider the book as the letter that one of its characters suggests that he should write to her when she is dead. The book centres around a very few meetings between the young Perola and Ellen, a visitor from south of Stockholm, who rents a cottage for a summer near his home in Västerbotten in the far north. When they first meet, he is 15 (the legal age of consent in Sweden, then as now) and she is 51. Nine years later, he visits her again briefly and the question arises as to what effect that first afternoon had had on both of them. He asks if he can write her a letter to tell her. ‘No,’ she replies. ‘Write a letter when I am dead.’
It becomes quite clear that this novel, apart from filling in such gaps, is a reworking of key events and themes from Enquist’s personal history. Also, themes, characters and stories from earlier novels and from Enquist’s plays reappear in what ends up as a dense mosaic, somehow reminiscent of the illegible letters written to him by one such character, the boy Siklund, a distant relation residing in a mental institution. Siklund pens E. long missives with the lines written over each other until they become unreadable. The degree of intertextuality gives the book a certain literary gravitas but, as one who has read much of Enquist’s canon, it is hard for me to judge what a reader who has not would make of a book where so much consists of references to earlier works.
As well as consciously forming his novel and spinning these self-referential networks, Enquist packs it full of other literary and cultural allusions. In addition to the obvious biblical ones, there are references to Robinson Crusoe, Kipling’s Kim, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, Jules Verne’s Nemo, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film Five Easy Pieces, Jean Sibelius’ unfinished eighth symphony and to Tove Jansson’s mournful Höstvisa (Autumn Song), which bears a possible message from beyond the grave within its lines: ‘Perhaps I love less than I did before, but more than you will ever know’.
Liknelseboken has its flaws. I feel that the early chapters – parables – are rather awkward, too much like some of Enquist’s, to my mind, weaker works of the early 1990s, too personal and introverted. Indeed, one could agree with Ellen’s comment, relayed at her funeral by her niece, that E. sometimes goes round when he should go straight. But, eventually, he gets to the central event of the book in the fourth chapter ‘The Parable of the Woman on the Knotless Pine Floor’, and the writing improves considerably. While I confess to being the sort of person who cries at the movies, it is not often a novel can move me to tears. By the middle of the last parable, however, its poignancy almost did.
After making love with Ellen, the young Perola concludes that ‘this is the meaning of life’ and, later, that sexuality was ‘like opening the innermost door to another person’. Perhaps the experience can be seen as freeing him from the bonds of his religious upbringing and allowing the adult Per Olov to develop into the major Swedish and international author he has become in the more than 50 years that have passed since his (literary) debut.