Will the Marmite test (i.e. love or loathe) apply in the UK to this extremely quirky novel? Apparently over 100,000 Norwegians have chosen the first option and have made the book a barnstorming success.
Erlend Loe is a bestselling novelist in his native Norway who is celebrated for his sardonic and unsparing take on modern Norwegian society. His satirical point of view is the starting point for this strange and humorous book – and although some of the author's targets are less à propos in 2011 (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 here. 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 he is 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. Throwing over his previous placid lifestyle, 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 and the society he no longer trusts.
Short of food, Doppler decides to shoot a moose and successfully ambushes one. 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 — Doppler finds that Bongo is a very good listener). But this Arcadian 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 — a man of markedly right-wing views — so his philosophical calm once again begins to be replaced by a life of quiet desperation.
The naive style of the narrative here will not be to every taste, and the humour is of an extremely individual hue. As a picture of a misanthrope struggling to lead a solitary life, Loe’s narrative quickly begins to establish an insidious grip – even, possibly, on readers who have initially resisted the central notion. The understated, self-regarding voice of Doppler becomes rather addictive, and when one realises that the whimsicality is actually sugaring a rather bitter pill, the experience of reading the book becomes more complex than a simple enjoyment of its absurdities. And if the reader is able to cope with these absurdities – not everyone will – they may find themselves enjoying a darkly comic fable which makes, en passant, some astringent points about the way we live today.