Boyd Tonkin: Master builders of a global reputation
The Week In Books
Friday 12 June 2009
Late last month I spent a few days in a northern European state whose people refused, twice, to join the European Union in referenda. It regularly rates as the most peaceful, productive and developed country in the world. However, I suspect that the reality of Norway might strike UKIP and other Euro-haters as more of a nightmare than a xenophobe's wet dream. Set aside the high level of practical alignment with EU laws and norms (which Norway usually outperforms), and the agreement that binds it – unlike Britain – to the Schengen free-movement zone.
Here we have a country whose foreign minister, part of a "red-green" coalition, not only writes a reflective and strong-selling book about his country's global responsibilities. He turns up at a literary conference to affirm the central role of authors and translators in his nation's life. British Euro-scepticism has only one political meaning: knuckle-headed, foreigner-scorning insularity. In Norway, it can mean the exact opposite. Would our Brussels-bashers really feel at home in Oslo?
The minister in question is the popular Jonas Gahr Store. He told a unique gathering of the emissaries who take Norwegian writing into other languages that "literature helps the world become both bigger and smaller at the same time". At a conference hotel in rolling countryside north of Oslo, 125 translators who work from Norwegian into 31 languages (from Korean to Hebrew, Polish to Chinese) discussed with one another, and the writers they represent, matters of interpretation large and small – from the best words to convey the "ums" and "ers" in Ibsen's dialogue to the way that literature can enlarge what Store called "Norway's footprint" in international affairs. It made for a revealing insight into how a fairly remote country, with fewer than five million people and a little-spoken language, has employed the bonanza of North Sea oil revenues to enhance its "soft power" in the wider world.
Carefully husbanded in state wealth funds, those riches are now vast – but piles of petro-kroner on deposit mean nothing until they go to work. In Britain, a steady stream of outstanding Norwegian novels has lately reached our shelves. They range from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses – perhaps the best-loved among readers of all winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – to bold and involving works from writers such as Linn Ullmann, Dag Solstad and Jan Kjaerstad (see page 32). Asne Seierstad's best-selling reportage from Afghanistan and Chechnya has steered narrative journalism into new territory. Through expert criminal practioners such as Jo Nesbo, KO Dahl and Karin Fossum, Norway has shared in the Scandinavian-detective boom. Now other genre specialists have begun to make a mark: look out later this month for Tom Egeland's romp through Viking secrets and Biblical mysteries, The Guardians of the Covenant.
This comparatively lavish exposure to a small state's literary talent does not come about by accident. Norla, the state foundation that promotes Norwegian literature, has managed by shrewd encouragement of publishers and translators to amplify the nation's voice abroad. Not, of course, that it would ever cross the seas unless the quality of the raw material justified the voyage in the first place. It does.
Does Norway's record hold lessons for any part of the UK? Scots often look enviously across the water and ponder what they might achieve globally if the parliament in Edinburgh could lay separate hands on the black gold beneath its waves. Yet, after a decade of botched arts policies, I know of scarcely any writer in Scotland – which must boast one of the world's densest concentrations of authorial firepower – who has a kind word to say about the treatment of literature under devolution. Official pride in, and respect for, authors in all their cantankerous variety matters more than cash in the bank. Perhaps Mr Store should go to Holyrood.
P.S.Back in April, Nicholas Tucker in these pages fingered writer-illustrator Anthony Browne – "a wonderful artist deserving of an even wider audience than he claims at the moment" – as a strong candidate to become the new Children's Laureate. On Tuesday, Browne (left) was duly unveiled as the sixth holder of the post, and will spend the next two years as a champion for young readers. He will, he promised, carry a special flame for the picture books that can, if executed as wittily and stylishly as in his work, turn beginners into life-long lovers of the printed page. Browne's trademark gorillas – the touching and bemused Everybeasts who gaze quizzically out of many of his 40-odd books – ought now to bestride the national stage. Not only do we have a worthy laureate for children, but a primate for primates as well.
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