by Jakob Ejersbo
ISBN: 1552784614

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A Review of: Nordkraft
by Kevin Higgins

Nordkraft is the first novel by young Danish writer Jakob Ejersbo, who already has a collection of short-stories, Superego, to his credit. Nordkraft is translated into English by Don Bartlett. The glossy back-cover is peppered with what, at first glance, looks like over-the-top praise from various reviewers in Ejersbo's native land. According to one, Nordkraft "is so gripping and strangely exhilarating because it brings to light linguistic inventiveness and a devil-may-care power to survive right down to the zero point of human existence." According to another, the novel deserves "6 stars out of a possible 6." Now, we all know how this sort of thing works. Back-cover quotes are cherry-picked from the mixed-bag of positive and negative reviews the vast majority of books receive. Nevertheless, there was something about the tone of these-and the sullen/groovy photograph of the tattooed author which also appears on the back-cover-that made me rather wary of this book, before I had even read a single word.
However, when I opened Nordkraft and actually began to read it, such world-weary suspicions were soon enough dispelled. The other novel it most resembles is Trainspotting, the 1993 best-seller by Irvine Welsh about the antics of a group of Scottish heroin-addict friends. The big difference between them is that Nordkraft is by far the superior book. Whereas Irvine Welsh's characters never amount to very much more than hilariously amusing cartoon characters, Ejersbo's characters are all fully three dimensional people, who have entirely believable relationships with each other.
The story begins dramatically: twenty-one-year-old Maria has been sent by her drug-dealer boyfriend Asger to buy some cannabis in Copenhagen. (The couple live and do business in Aalborg, a small town in Northern Jutland.) Asger has assured Maria that there will be no police around the club where she is to buy the drugs. But there is a police raid, and a riot ensues. Maria ends up being cornered by a police dog:

"The dog handler takes a step forward, the Alsatian rears up and lodges its paws on my shoulders, the dog's jaws snap at my neck. Someone screams. It is me...Nielsen [the dog-handler] approaches. With a hysterical scream I rip open my jeans. I catch a glimpse of her wide-open eyes as I thrust my hands down into my underpants. I grab hold; pull out the blood-soaked sanitary pad and hurl it at the dog which starts chewing it."

>From there on the reader is drawn into the world of Maria, Asger and their friends: Loser', whose nickname tells us pretty much everything we need to know about him; Hossein, a drug-dealing deserter from the Iranian Army to whom Maria is attracted; and Ulla with whom Maria briefly experiments in lesbianism. The novel is divided into three sections. The first, "Junkie Dogs", is mostly the aforementioned story of Maria and Asger. The second, "The Bridge", is about the return of Allan who had left Aalborg to work on an oil tanker travelling between Lagos and Rotterdam, in the hope that this might enable him to escape the old life. The final section, "The Funeral", tells the fragmented and often manic story of how they all gather for the funeral of their old friend, Steso. All this no doubt makes Nordkraft sound like just another sensational novel about young people taking drugs and dying, the sort of book destined to become a Hollywood film starring whoever the next Mickey O'Rourke happens to be. What saves it are Ejersbo's psychological insights. By far the most complex character in Nordkraft is Maria. Ejersbo's portrayal of Maria's relationship with her mother, from whom she is estranged, shows that he has a good understanding of the subtleties surrounding such small human dramas. Maria receives a note from me mother which reads:

Dear Maria,
I am very sorry for what I said about your father [her parents are divorced] Sorry, sorry, sorry, darling. Won't you call me? Then perhaps we could arrange a meal together? I hate it when we fall out.
Lots of love,
your mother.

Maria's response is predictable: "When we...fall out. We fell out bloody years ago. The cow runs my father down and then she thinks it can be sorted out with three sorrys and a kilo of warmed up frozen food." The way Maria sees the fall out' with her mother as final and irreparable (remember, she is only twenty-one years old) is typical of the stark either-or world-view many early twenty-somethings try to impose on their lives, in order to mount some sort of resistance to the plans their parents and society have devised for them. By the time we're forty most of us come to realise that each of us has at least as many grey areas and hypocrisies as our parents ever did, and so we begin to view the human beings they were a little less harshly. But here Maria is too busy storming the barricades against the bourgeois' life her ex-hippy mother has in mind for her to bother with such nuanced reappraisals. She particularly despises her mother's new boyfriend, Hans-Jorgen, who is the head stage-designer at the local theatre:

"He loves her flabby femininity, her caresses and devotion. He loves screwing with her and drinking wine and going to concerts with the Symphony Orchestra and taking city breaks in Barcelona and the whole shit. The only snag with my mother is me-the little brat who doesn't want to be a nice girl."

While Maria doesn't like to hear her still-hippy father criticised by her ex-hippy mother, her own description of him is one of the funniest passages in a book in which the humour has, thankfully, survived translation:

"My father worked as a roadie round Europe for all sorts of semi-known bands, but he only worked when the stars were in the right constellation...But we really need the money', my mother said to him...I can't go away now. The moon is in the perfect position', he said. The vegetable garden was weeded in strict accordance with Steiner's theories about the moon. And we had a dog, Mr. Brown, who refused to eat meat- he was a diehard vegetarian. If we gave him white rice instead of natural brown rice, he grumbled."

Many pages later, her relationship with the ineffectual Asger now over, Maria's life has narrowed to a few starkly posed choices: "Here she is sitting on the steps of the railway station, smoking herself silly on pot and having to choose between moving in with her over-protective mother, travelling out to her alcoholic father's or going down on her knees to a dishy but shady Iranian war refugee [Hossein] who carries a gun and wants her."
Though many of her friends go under, Maria survives and decisively leaves this life behind "to look for a job." We aren't told how she gets on, but her character is one who'll typically succeed, where many others fail. Nordkraft is a truly enjoyable read, far more than just another book about contemporary drug culture. It is a penetrating study of the way youthful rebellion often vanishes down the saddest cul-de-sacs, and a graphic illustration of the fact that however one might think one can resist it, society always has its way in the end.

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