Will the Marmite test (love or loathe) apply in the UK to this extremely quirky novel? Over 100,000 Norwegians have chosen the first option and made the book a barnstorming success. Erlend Loe is a bestselling novelist in Norway, celebrated for his sardonic and unsparing take on modern society. His satirical point-of-view is the starting point for this strange and humorous book. Although some of the targets are less à propos in 2013 (the book has taken eight years to reach English readers, in a translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw), there are still some cogent points made. If, that is, you can accept the whimsy of a man conversing with a baby moose.
Doppler regards himself as a failed man of his time – although prepared to accept that the times themselves may be at fault. He has sustained a typical bourgeois Oslo existence with a successful career and family, but a tumble from his mountain bike results in a seismic mental shift. He decides to adopt a solitary life in the forest in the manner of Thoreau's Walden, attempting to strip from his soul every aspect of his previous way of living.
Short of food, Doppler shoots a moose. But the animal he kills is a female, and he finds himself adopting the calf, which he names Bongo. Lengthy conversations ensue between the two (or, more precisely, monologues – Bongo is a good listener). But this set-up is inevitably threatened. Doppler's wife tells him she's pregnant and that it is his duty to come home for the birth. More pressingly, he has a new neighbour – of markedly Right-wing views – so his philosophical calm once again begins to be replaced by desperation.
The naive style and humour here will not be to every taste, yet as a picture of a misanthrope struggling to lead a solitary life, Loe's narrative begins to establish an insidious grip. When one realises that the whimsicality is sugaring a rather bitter pill, reading the book becomes more complex. Readers able to cope with these absurdities may find themselves enjoying a darkly comic fable which makes, en passant, some astringent points about the way we live.