Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Flanked by wooded hills and with a fast-flowing river running through it, this postcard-perfect town hosts an ever-growing literary festival as May slides into June. Zadie Smith came to talk about her (now prize-winning) novel. Its title? Om Skjønnhet. Another star turn - the journalist and travel writer Asne Seierstad - told of her grim ordeal at another festival. Locked out of her hotel, she spent the night in a police cell. That happened at some place called Hay. Here in Lillehammer - a hundred miles north of Oslo, up the banks of the Mjøsa loch that seems to snake forever through central Norway - I'm sure that no hotelier (or anyone) would treat an author so.

Well-mannered, well-managed, Lillehammer's five days of debates import the tensions and traumas of a more agitated world into this serene lakeside locale, which enjoyed its 15 days of fame when it staged (impeccably, of course) the Winter Olympics in 1994. This year, it welcomed not just Seierstad - whose family comes from here - but Shah Muhammad Rais, the real-life "Bookseller of Kabul" whose life and fate (so he now claims) she plundered as raw material for her global bestseller. He has hired a notoriously predatory libel specialist, so maybe Asne's brushes with the law will not begin and end in rural Wales.

Lillehammer feels like the literary heartland of Norway. Ibsen (the centenary of whose death unleashed a mountain-torrent of events) set Peer Gynt in the Gudbrundsdalen valley that winds north from the town. Sigrid Unset, the Nobel-winning novelist and presiding genius of the festival, wrote and gardened here in a house that's due to open as a museum next year. And Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, the bard who wrote Norway's national anthem, lived not far away at Aulestad. But Lillehammer does heresy as well as heritage. The radical theatre guru Peter Sellars gave the keynote lecture, while a wrangle over the Danish cartoon controversy between Kenan Malik from Britain and Norwegian writer Nazneen Khan Østrem reminded visitors that this is not (quite) a monocultural society.

As for Norwegian fiction, it now travels as far as Norwegian shipping. Adelheid Seyfarth, a well-known black journalist, made a critical splash with her debut novel Father's House, its African family quest connecting and contrasting a woman's experiences in Norway and Kenya. Intrigued and disturbed by the rescued child soldiers he came across as refugees in schools, the popular Arne Svingen went to Ivory Coast to research a teenage novel about them - and then unwound with a Roddy Doyle-ish romp, The Thugs' Committee, about growing up as a rebel rock fan in the age of Abba (and Marxism). Vidar Sundstøl, who has lived in and written about Egypt, has made the hero of his new novel Michelle's Things a successful but disoriented Norwegian crime writer adrift in southern Spain.

Successful (but not disoriented), the thriller writers Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø turned up at Lillehammer - both available in English, as are other festival favourites such as Linn Ullmann and Lars Saabye Christensen. Yet, until now, the reputation of the godfather of postwar fiction has not really made the crossing over the North Sea.

Dag Solstad did speak at Lillehammer - but as an expert on the World Cup. He's a soccer buff, much in demand for quiz nights, as well as the novelist whose work - by critical consent - best sums up Norway's modern trends and traumas. It may be scant consolation for Norway's absence from (and Sweden's presence at) the tournament, but Solstad's first English translation for ages is published later this month: the novella Shyness and Dignity, from Harvill Secker. Anyone who craves a taste of the latter over the next, mad weeks had better head for Lillehammer now.