The 2023 Nordic Literature Reading Challenge is underway, and one of the prompts for the challenge is to read a winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize. Awarded since 1962 to a work of fiction written in one of the Nordic languages, the mission of the Nordic Council Literature Prize is to “generate interest in the literature and language of neighbouring countries, and in the Nordic cultural community”.
This is a somewhat tricky prompt because not all of the winners have English translations, and of those that do, they aren’t always readily available. Of course you can read a winner in the original language, but here’s a list of winners with English translations in case that’s not possible. In planning my own reading for this year’s challenge, I picked out the following books from each of the Nordic countries to consider for this prompt.
DENMARK – The Prophets of Eternal Fjord: A Novel by Kim Leine, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (novel, 500+ pages)
“Kim Leine’s great epic, ‘Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden’, is the story of the Danish priest Morten Falck who travels to Greenland at the end of the 1700s. Through this unfolds the tale of Danish colonisation as a completely crazy and meaningless project. The Danish officials try to keep hold of power and customs but are plagued by homesickness and resignation. Grief and anger smoulders amongst the Greenlanders, and some of them seize Christianity and the European ideas of freedom as an inspiration for rebellion against colonial power. But as well as being a critical, historical novel that reminds us of Denmark’s problematic past as a colonial power, the book is also a depiction of dirt as mankind’s basic element.”
Why I’m considering it: I’m intrigued by this selection due to the time and place of the setting, both of which are new to me, and I have no familiarity with this story of Denmark’s past. On top of that, it’s a multiple prize-winning book. Besides winning the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013, it won the Danish literature prize De Gyldne Laurbær in 2012. It also made the shortlist for the Dublin Literature Award in 2017. This book would be an option for two of the prompts for the Nordic Lit Reading Challenge!
FINLAND – Purge: A Novel by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (novel, 417 pages)
“Her [Sofi Oksanen’s] third novel, Purge, is about the Soviet occupation of Estonia and its consequences. Unfortunately, it is also very much of current interest with its stories about human trafficking around the Baltic. The book’s two time levels are 1992 – one year after Estonia won its independence – and the 1940s – when tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia and agriculture was collectivised. On a summer morning in 1992, old Aliide Truu finds an exhausted and confused young woman in her vegetable garden. This Zara has been tricked away from her home in Vladivostok to work as a sex worker in Berlin. On the way to Tallinn where she was supposed to start selling her body to Finnish sex tourists, she manages to escape.”
Why I’m considering it: Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish author (Finnish father and Estonian mother) who first appeared on my radar for her latest novel Dog Park (2021 in translation by Owen Frederick Witesman). The Soviet occupation of Estonia is a little known topic to me, and I always enjoy a good dual-timeline novel.
ICELAND – The Blue Fox: A Novel by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (novel, 130 pages)
“The Blue Fox is a novel about an Icelandic pastor and a fox hunt. Sjón makes use of the Icelandic folktale to tell his story. One of the principal characters is the pastor Baldur Skuggason. He has an evil, dark side to his character. Another key figure is the strange offspring of a cat and a fox following the story – Sjón’s style has elements of a very unique Icelandic sense of humour. The Blue Fox is a short novel with a few sections. Some pages only consist of a single written line, surrounded by large white surfaces calling to mind the Icelandic expanse. This concreteness can be said to balance on the line between prose and poetry. ‘Skugga-Baldur’ is also a contemporary novel which brings up some of today’s ethical questions. Are the weak, deformed babies with developmental disorders welcome in a world where they could have been discarded already prior to birth?”
Why I’m considering it: I’ve been curious about Sjón for a while. Besides writing novels, he’s a poet, screenwriter, and involved in the music scene. In 2016, he was the third writer chosen to contribute to the Future Library project.
NORWAY – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan (novel, 144 pages)
“The Ice Palace is a novel with two 11-year-old girls as the protagonists: extrovert Siss and quiet, introvert Unn. The day after a meeting of the girls at which Unn revealed that she is carrying a dark secret, Unn travels to the ice palace. This is a huge ice formation which builds up at a waterfall in winter-time. As it turns out to be made up of several ice rooms, she walks into the palace. Unn is enthralled by the beauty of the rooms, but in the seventh room she loses her way and cannot find her way out. She freezes to death with Siss’s name on her lips. The novel concludes with the story of Siss’s life and her reaction to Unn’s death. Siss now becomes the quiet and lonely one. She goes into an inner ice palace until she is finally redeemed and can move on into adulthood with a profound insight.”
Why I’m considering this: I have not read any of Tarjei Vesaas’ works yet, but he is arguably one of Norway’s greatest writers. His authorship spans from 1923 to 1970. He won many awards during his lifetime and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 57 times. The Ice Palace and The Birds are his most famous works.
SWEDEN – Blackwater: A Novel by Kerstin Ekman, translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate (novel, 448 pages)
“Blackwater is a detective novel set in the town of Svartvattnet in Norrland. It depicts a woman from Stockholm, who moves in with her boyfriend in the town to work as a teacher in a commune. However, events revolve around a double homicide that remains unsolved and the consequences of this trauma for the people in the town. Kerstin Ekman’s story invites many reading styles; it can be read as a Bildungsroman, as a critical analysis of gender roles, as a mythical story with symbolic elements, but, of course, also simply as a thrilling detective novel.”
Why I’m considering it: I read Kerstin Ekman’s God’s Mercy a few years ago. I enjoyed the descriptive setting of rural northern Sweden in the early 1900s. Blackwater also takes place in a remote, northern setting, but in the later part of the 1900s. I’m intrigued by the many ways that Blackwater can be read, but most of all by its crime novel aspect. Besides winning the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1994, it received the prestigious Swedish August Prize and the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award in 1993.
Which of these would you read first? Are there other Nordic Council Literature Prize winners that you’ve read and would recommend?
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