My daughter sent me the following article from The Guardian/The Observer that was published on November 19, 2011. The author, Andrew Anthony, examines how Norway as a nation and its crime writers in particular are going to deal with fictional mass murder while they try to cope with the manner in which the events took place require them to re-examine who they are. It is a very thought-provoking piece, one that raises far more questions than it can answer. I divided the article into two parts, the second to be posted on Wednesday
How do you write crime fiction in the wake of a massacre?
The mass slaughter on Utøya in July shook Norway to its core. Now the country’s crime writers must come to terms with what happened.
Oslo is not a city whose streets hum with urban tension and social decay. To the casual observer, the Norwegian capital is a study in frictionless living: clean, well-ordered, civic-minded, affluent yet essentially egalitarian in spirit. There are more paintings by Edvard Munch here than there are graffiti, and Saturday night in town can seem about as frenetic as a bank holiday in Sunningdale. The locals speak with metropolitan pride about the edginess of the “east side”, where most of the city’s non-European immigrants live, but from a British perspective even that neighbourhood seems like a model of residential tranquillity.
Yet these placid streets have produced countless psychopaths, serial killers, political assassins and degenerates of every conceivable stripe. Or at least they have in the work of Norway‘s many bestselling crime writers, such as Jo Nesbø, Anne Holt, Thomas Enger, KO Dahl, Gunnar Staalesen (who mostly focuses on Bergen) and Karin Fossum. Along with one of the world’s lowest rates of real-life crime, Norway boasts one of the highest rates of fictional crime.
If this disjunction between an apparently settled state and a violently restless literary imagination is a well-established Scandinavian phenomenon, it is most pronounced in Norway, the most benign of the Nordic nations in practice and the most malevolent in prose. It’s as if a generation of Norwegian crime writers took the advice of the nation’s two giants of literature a little too literally. “Wake the people up and make them think big,” said the dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and the Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun declared that writers should describe the “whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow”. The result has been as vivid and incongruous as spilt guts on virgin snow.
Norwegian crime writers have got used to defending themselves against the charge of pure fantasy. They usually respond by pointing out that, contrary to the global image, Norway does suffer from crime and social dysfunction, and there are dark forces abroad behind the facade of the social democratic idyll. But taking into account the vast oil and gas reserves that make Norway (tiny tax havens aside) Europe’s wealthiest per capita nation, a princely welfare system, and murders running at a world-historic low of 0.6 per 100,000 people, no one took them very seriously. Not until 22 July this year. At around 3.30pm on that long summer’s afternoon, a 32-year-old man named Anders Behring Breivik set off a car bomb outside government buildings in central Oslo which killed eight people and injured many more.
Visiting his widowed mother at her flat in the city, the novelist KO Dahl heard the explosion. Dahl is the author of a series of crime novels featuring two Oslo detectives, Gunnarstranda and Frølich. He approaches the genre from a socio-psychological angle, examining social conditions and character motivations in robustly gripping narratives.
Like many Norwegians, he turned on the television, followed the reports and speculated that the bomb was the work of Islamic extremists. Then a message flashed on screen that there had been a shooting on the tiny island of Utøya in the Tyrifjorden lake about 25 miles north-west of Oslo. The island is owned by the Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylking (AUF), or Workers’ Youth League, which is the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour party. The AUF was holding a summer camp for around 500 members of the organisation, most of whom were teenagers.
Kjell Ola Dahl:‘My niece was there. I was this comfortable writer and suddenly I was in hell. I did a lot of reflection on that’.
The Labour party has been the ruling party in Norway for most of the postwar years, and members of the AUF often move through the party machine to become the leaders of the future. Jens Stoltenberg, the current prime minister, for example, started out in the AUF. Among their number was Dahl’s 15-year-old niece. She wasn’t particularly political, but her friends were, and she went along to Utøya partly to be with them.
As soon as Dahl saw the newsflash, he started scanning the internet in silent panic. He knew his niece was on the island, and he did not want to alert his mother – his niece’s grandmother – to the unfolding terror.
“This is a very special niece,” Dahl says. “My sister died of cancer 10 years ago and it’s her youngest daughter. So she’s been some kind of mascot.”
We’re sitting in Dahl’s beautifully appointed farmhouse on the banks of Lake Mjøsa, a dramatically serene setting 90 minutes’ drive from Oslo. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place. But that same observation was made about Utøya. On the internet, Dahl recalls, he came across a tweet that said the assailant on the island was dressed as a policeman. “And I said, OK, it’s a Nazi, there’s no doubt in my mind. It was a confirmation that the Nazis are still there and still active.”
Ever since the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began their influential series of crime novels in the 1950s, Scandinavian crime fiction – through Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and their Norwegian counterparts – has been written largely from a leftwing perspective, as a critique of the failings and hidden hypocrisies of social democracy. Within this viewpoint, neo-Nazism has performed the role of all-purpose bogeyman, as a kind of sinister spectre of capitalism haunting both the margins and the impenetrable heart of society.
Dahl is among the many Norwegian writers who have explored the neo-Nazi threat, in his case in a book entitled The Man in the Window. Even the hugely popular Jo Nesbø, whose recent biggest sellers have been apolitical tales of freakish serial killers, employed the neo-Nazi trope in one of his earlier novels, The Redbreast, in which a racist thug makes a speech berating Europe for abandoning national socialism and allowing mass immigration. “They let the enemy build mosques in our midst, let them rob our old folk and mingle blood with our women,” says the white supremacist of the Norwegian political class.
Breivik’s almost identical gripes were detailed at rambling length in the manifesto he published on the internet to accompany his killing spree, in which he described his hatred of Norway’s ruling “cultural Marxists” and, in particular, foreign immigration. Notwithstanding his intuitions, Dahl knew none of this at the time, while the killer was loose on the island.
As Dahl grew increasingly anxious at his mother’s flat, his mother saw a news report about Utøya and she immediately phoned her granddaughter. Amazingly, the girl answered. She was hiding close to the shore in the lake, terrified. She said that a killer was shooting people on sight. Her grandmother told her that he was not a real policeman and handed the phone to Dahl to give his niece advice.
“All I heard,” recalls Dahl, “was ‘He’s coming’. Then the phone went dead.”
Jo Nesbø:‘I will not address the massacre itself. But it has so influenced our way of thinking and our society’. Photograph: Steve Black/Rex Features
Two and half hours later, after an excruciating silence, Dahl discovered that his niece had survived. She had dropped her phone in the water and pretended to be dead, a tactic that required steely nerves because Breivik shot several apparent corpses just to make sure. A girl who was hiding next to Dahl’s niece was unable to maintain the act. Overcome by fear as Breivik approached, she began screaming uncontrollably. Without hesitating, the gunman shot her dead. After 90 minutes of remorseless slaughter, 69 people, some as young as 14, had been killed and a further 66 were injured.
In the wake of the killings, Nesbø wrote: “There is no road back to the way it was before.” He was speaking of the disappearance of his country’s extraordinary sense of security and innocence, in which the prime minister could walk in the street and chat with the public on first-name terms. Yet perhaps there was also a more specific meaning that referred to crime fiction. Where could it go after such a spectacular crime? For decades it had traded on the idea of a lurking menace, some faceless demon eating away at the Scandinavian dream. What to say now that it had revealed itself?
“I don’t know how my writing will change,” Nesbø later said. “It will change… I will not address the massacre itself. But it’s so influenced our way of thinking and our society. So it will be there in my novels somewhere, I’m sure.” Dahl, too, senses that his writing will be affected by the events of 22 July but also doesn’t know how. I wonder if the intimate terror he suffered as his niece’s phone was cut off will make itself known in the experiences of his characters. While he accepts the possibility, he says that what he’s noticed has been the impact on how he interacts with people in real life. Previously he had been inclined to detach himself from the plight of victims of tragedy, not out of callousness but a sort of incuriosity.
“Then this happens and my niece was there,” he explains. “Suddenly I was one of those people, though my niece survived. I did a lot of reflection on that. I was this comfortable writer and suddenly for two hours I was in hell. Every time I meet some emotional stress in me or my family or other people, I’m humble. It’s important to try to respect what’s going on.”
What’s going on in Norway is an extended period of national self-reflection. It’s worth comparing this response with the reaction in Britain to the terror spree of David Copeland, the neo-Nazi “London Nail Bomber” whose attack on the capital’s gay and black communities left three dead and 129 injured in April 1999.
There wasn’t much soul-searching when Copeland was arrested and tried. Few thought that he was the product of the system’s failings. By contrast, in Norway there is a great need to “understand” what caused Breivik’s actions. This is partly due to the overdeterministic Scandinavian analysis of errant behaviour, which invariably ascribes criminality to society’s faults. But it’s also because there are just 5 million Norwegians and each of them felt directly affected by the carnage at Utøya.
This is a point that the literary novelist Jan Kjaerstad makes when I meet him in Oslo. Kjaerstad is the author of a celebrated postmodern trilogy that focuses on the sprawling life of a television presenter who is charged with murdering his wife. By turns picaresque and ironic, it’s a revealing portrait of Norwegian preoccupations and insecurities.
“Norway is a small country,” he says. “We have this history of no war from 1814 to now, with the exception of the Nazi occupation. Everyone knows someone who had some connection to these killings.”
Just how small Norway is became apparent to me when Kjaerstad and I went to lunch at Bølgen & Moi, a cool brasserie in a renovated power station. As we sat down, he told me that the adjacent table was referred to as the “Crown Prince table”.
“Why’s that?” I asked unthinkingly.
“Because the Crown Prince sometimes eats there,” came the obvious reply.
Jan Kjaerstad:‘If someone goes into a bubble, you can’t reach them when they pass a certain level of rationality’. Photograph: Sutton-Hibbert/Rex Features
A while later a tall, broad-shouldered man with a beard walked in and sat down at the table, but not before exchanging pleasantries with Kjaerstad.
“See,” said the author, turning to me and introducing the man, “I told you. This is the Crown Prince.”
We shook hands and chatted for a while and then returned to our separate tables, as informally as any three blokes in a bar. Kjaerstad, who’s a charmingly understated character, is also on first-name terms with the prime minister and the psychiatrist who is analysing Breivik to decide whether or not he is sane. While not everyone in Norway is as connected as Kjaerstad, it can seem like everyone knows someone who is.
Kjaerstad thinks it will take a long period of creative gestation before a good novel is produced dealing with 22 July. In the meantime, he’s doubtful that the search for societal answers will prove all that fruitful. “People are going too fast and coming to very easy conclusions. It is of course an illusion that you can fix something like this. If someone goes into a bubble, you can’t reach them. When they pass a certain level of rationality, they are beyond reach.”
Part II tomorrow