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Books: Five hundred years of solicitude for the troll of Skule Forest

The Forest of Hours

by Kerstin Ekman, trs Anna Paterson Chatto pounds 15.99

Kerstin Ekman's Blackwater (1993) has proved the most successful Swedish novel of our decade, and was the first work of its author to be translated into English (1995). Its ostensible subject is the solution of the brutal murder of two campers by a lake in a remote part of northern Sweden, a solution that takes almost 20 years to be arrived at. But, as readers have been quick to appreciate, its real subjects are the social changes between the early 1970s and now - above all in Sweden itself but corresponding to those of elsewhere - and Nature, its mystery, its meaning for us. The huge novel that preceded Blackwater (in 1988) was no less ambitious. Called in Swedish Rovarna i Skule Skogen ("The Robbers in Skule Forest") it has been brilliantly and mellifluously translated by Anna Paterson as , for me a happier and an apter title since it suggests the twin challenges posed us by place (Nature) and by time (our life-spans). As Kerstin Ekman writes in a passage representative of her individual combination of the near- mystical and the densely intellectual:

"Strands of time run through the forest. The high fields of scree are solidified waves of stone, long swells of unmoving time. Tall trees, once whispering in the wind, have sunk into the peat bogs, where time ferments in the marshy pools ... It is forgotten woodland, flowering in borrowed time."

The central character of is a denizen of this very forest (Skule), a troll. We don't know exactly how old he is when we first meet him - performing a kind office for a giant trapped by a fallen tree - but he must be young; his appearance is boyish, and it is as a boy that the humans he subsequently gets to know take him. The date of these incidents is uncertain too (who among those we meet in the opening scenes of the book knows about historical time?) but we realise it must be some point in the 14th century. The troll, Skord, lives on for five centuries; at the time of his death, the railway is being forged through the wild terrain of northern Sweden. Skord doesn't remain unchanged during his long life, though for the initial centuries it seems as if he does, presenting a constant-seeming aspect of boyhood to the world. But later on he ages, and his ageing can be disconcertingly fast. One man who hasn't seen him for seven months thinks that seven years or even 17 could have passed, Skord looks so much older. By the time he comes to die, he feels that he has indeed lived a very long time, and is tired, drained of energy after so many experiences, many of them painful and frustrating. But the last stage of his life has been distinguished by a love - for the strange but human Xenia who spent 12 years of her childhood missing in another dimension - a love of a greater intensity and reality than any other he had known. "Skord loves Xenia the way the salmon leaps in the waterfall. He leaps higher, much higher than he needs to. Xenia and Skord love each other the way bog rosemary and bear moss intertwine - not for show, not for a purpose nor with intent." Perhaps it was to know this that he survived for so long.

What is a troll? Skord's being is hard to define: he can pass himself off as a human easily enough, is able to speak to humans, indeed at times to dazzle them with learning and wit, can have sex with them, can fight alongside or against them. Yet much of what he does is acquired parrot- fashion, by mimicry, albeit mimicry of great skill and intelligence. (He can converse with equal success with many animals and birds.) In the last resort his nature has a stubborn non-human core; he is essentially an outsider to our race, capable both of seeing through the elaborate devices we construct to protect ourselves from obvious yet frightening truths (religion, art, scientific theories), and yet, chameleon-like, of exploiting these. In this last he is, of course, little different from many humans, most of whose ideas are borrowed and principally for reasons of expediency or gain. Paradoxically, therefore, those non-human aspects of Skord's nature are precisely those that most illuminate our own fractured, desperate existence. It is surely no accident that repeatedly Skord feels most at home among the groups of robbers - misfits, psychopaths, deformed persons - who haunt Skule Forest, battening on and terrifying those they come across.

For much of the action of the book Skord is engaged in literal philosophic activity - travelling with a medieval Magister, working as an alchemist to produce Live Gold, and later practising as a mesmerist when this was fashionable. Kerstin Ekman enters fascinatedly into all these pursuits, but ultimately reveals them as illusory, destined to failure. She, one infers, has no religion herself, no unifying philosophy; she famously defended Salman Rushdie with a tract on the Right to Blaspheme. There remains beyond all ideas Nature, which will survive us in all its unfathomable complexity, even if it too will perish ultimately, represented by the forestland of Skule up in Angermanland. I write as one to whom this part of Northern Sweden has the deepest emotional and personal significance, and I have read little more beautiful than Kerstin Ekman's - fictively integrated - evocations of this country: "The forest grows on hillsides and on the steep sides of the dark river ravines. The slopes are covered with moorland and the streams leap from waterfall to waterfall ... Only the still, clear-water lochs are smooth-surfaced, but their depths chill the eye."