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This was a book that I was looking forward to very much last year – it had a beautiful cover, it had short stories by Scandinavian authors, it was a new collection, it was perfect winter reading. But I could get into it only last week, and I finished reading it today.

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The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories‘ has eighteen short stories. Authors from countries which are the usual suspects are featured – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland. The interesting thing though is that authors from some of the lesser known islands are featured too – Faroe islands, Åland islands, Greenland. One of the Norwegian writers featured belongs to the indigenous Saami community. There is also a Finnish writer featured who is originally from Iraq. That is lots of diversity in a small book and it is pretty impressive. I had heard of only one writer featured in the book, Per Olov Enquist. His story was one of my favourites. I might have heard of another writer, Dorthe Nors too, but I am not sure. So, I discovered atleast sixteen new writers because of this book, which is a wonderful thing.

My favourite stories from the book were these.

The Man in the Boat by Per Olov Enquist – Two boys make a raft without anyone knowing and they take a trip in the lake. Then strange things happen. The story was about the carefree nature of young people, the innocence of youth and how that innocence is lost because of sudden and surprising life experiences. I loved the nod to Greek / Pagan mythology in the story. The story had a poignant, heartachingly beautiful ending.

The Author Himself by Madame Nielsen – The narrator of the story meets her favourite author Peter Høeg once, and the story tracks the narrator’s own life between the encounters she has with Peter Høeg across time, either personally or through the news.

1974 by Frode Grytten – This depicts events in a short period in the summer of 1974. It made me remember ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘. There were some beautiful passages in this story.

San Francisco by Niviaq Korneliussen – The narrator has a tragic event happen in her life and suddenly ends up in a new country with her not remembering how she got there. The story narrates events of the present in which the narrator survives because of the kindness of strangers and also looks back into the past and we learn what actually happened. A very beautiful, poignant story.

I also liked ‘A World Apart‘ by Rosa Liksom, in which the short story was divided into chapters, each of which was a short story in itself, ‘Zombieland‘ by Sørine Steenholdt, in which the narrator has a tough life because of her mother, “Don’t kill me, I beg you. This is my tree” by Hassan Blasim, which depicts an immigrant’s life in Finland and also shows how it is not always possible to run away from the past, ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat‘ by Johan Bargum, in which the narrator’s father starts behaving like a dog (I don’t know whether it was a take on Kafka’sMetamorphosis‘) and ‘Sunday‘ by Naja Marie Aidt, which had an interesting surprise in the end. There is also an interesting interpretation of the Norwegian fairytale, ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon‘, called ‘The White-Bear King Valemon‘ by Linda Boström Knausgaard.

I liked ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North‘. Some of the stories were straightforward reads, while others were more challenging and had to be read closely and carefully. I am glad to have discovered so many new Scandinavian writers through this book. I can’t wait to explore some of their longer works. This book also has an introduction at the beginning, in the form of a conversation between the editors. It is a beautiful, interesting introduction to Scandinavian literature.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘The Author Himself‘ by Madame Nielsen

“I opened the book and began to read as I stood. Impossible. I grasped nothing. What I saw on the pages was at once regular and yet utterly chaotic. I understood the words on their own, of course, or at least most of them, and could even, as though through a dense entanglement of branches, make out a scene, or at least its outline, or perhaps more exactly a structure, and behind that structure another structure, and behind that another, and so on. If it was a circus trick, then it was of such virtuosity that one could no longer see the artist or the figure he was drawing, the illusion. It was like thousands upon thousands of da Vinci drawings layered on top of each other, so dense and so extremely complex there was nothing to see. It was the opposite of nothing. It was everything. And all too much.”

From ‘Zombieland‘ by Sørine Steenholdt

“I want to live like them. To fall. To give up. To live without the weight of the world, just existing and being there. I want to seem as if I’m OK. I want to rely on people to take over. I want to be able to count on other people to deal with all of it. I am fascinated by the people who have given up, but continue to live. I could let myself fall down with them. Leave here with them, go drink with them, forget about the future and live by the bottle. Stop working, stop having an opinion about myself, stop paying the rent, stop having a place to live. I could just spend the nights wherever. I could just drink and be happy. How easy life would be : to be the living dead.”

From ‘1974‘ by Frode Grytten

      “In the year 1974 my father started attacking his own family. In 1974 I waited for phone calls from a crazy girl who I knew was going to drop me the minute she got tired of me. But that’s how it is, that’s how you lose a city, and it’s only afterwards that you can write the story. When you’re in the middle of it, you think everything will stay the same, everything will remain the way it is, just a little bit different.
      Then you’re standing there one day on the empty street when you’ve come home after having been away for a long time, and you meet people you don’t know, or people you don’t recognize. The grey factory buildings and the grey mountains are the same as they have always been. But everything has changed and the workers don’t walk through the gate to punch the clock any more. That’s how it happens : first your best friend loves, then you move, then they shut down the smelting works, then there’s a whole gang of men nobody needs, and then the radio stations don’t play the records you like any longer. Then they ship the entrails of the factory to Poland, China and Argentina, and then they start arguing about what’s going to happen to the shells of the buildings that have started falling down. The benches are empty, there’s no longer water in the fountain outside city hall, and the neon lights on the cinema have stopped working.
      There used to be something here, something beautiful and disturbing all at once, and it seemed important, a sparkling future that perhaps nobody fully believed in, but which was ingrained in you – this is your city, this is your time, this is what you are. And look now : I can’t even remember everybody’s names.”

Have you read ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and other stories from the North‘? What do you think about it?

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