“Jonas and Buddha created a common domain that was theirs alone; they were both citizens of an imaginary Mongolia,” Kjaerstad, The Conqueror

Strolling on Hisoy


As time went on, Jonas and Buddha created a common domain that was theirs alone; they were both citizens of an imaginary Mongolia, ‘land of the brave, proud men.’ As often as possible they would take themselves off to Lillomarka to indulge their Mongolian inclinations: to be nomads on a boundless plain, nomads who loved the wind and the freedom found under those clear skies, who would quite spontaneously compare sheep viewed against a lush pasture with pearls on green velvet. Over his bed in the new villa, just a stone’s throw from Solhaug and their old flat, Buddha had a large-scale map of Mongolia and across this they made many an arduous trek before he went to sleep. In due course, Buddha memorized the names of most of the country’s towns and provinces, mountains and rivers. He was also one of the very few people in Norway who knew the meaning of such utterly elementary words as ‘khalka,’ ‘tugrik,’ and ‘urga.’ Jonas never could tell how much of all this his brother understood, but he certainly remembered it, used the words properly—it could of course have been put down to his marvelous gift for mimicry, which also made him an uncommonly good ABBA imitator—his renderings of numbers such as “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” were quite priceless. Buddha could well be called an expert in his field.

—Jan Kjærstad, The Conqueror (trans. by Barbara J. Haveland)

This quote, which shuffles quickly from the noetic to the experiential to the ephemeral, is just the kind of thing that stirs my heart, and it expresses, I think, what so many of us hope to find in books. Right here, in one paragraph, is tautly combined the joy of an imaginary world, the way that we see ourselves most deeply in the worlds we create for ourselves, with the most humdrum possible artistic pursuit, imitating pop songs.

Books are the fuel for those explorations, the raw material for our own creative sorties. I think that part of what Kjaerstad is trying to do in his Jonas Wergeland novels is to create a shadow Norway, an alternate-history Norway, in which can be addressed some of the peculiarities of the Norwegian national character. Interestingly, he’s telling the same story in The Conqueror as in The Seducer, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off, and one that reinforces my thesis here. The Conqueror is an alternate history of The Seducer. We’ll see after the third novel (The Discoverer, yet to be released in English translation) if this holds true, and if Kjaerstad can sew the whole garment together.

Oh yes, Khalkha is the name of the Mongol people and language; tugrik is money, and urga is a long stick with a lasso at the end for animal herding.

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