Herman, by Lars Saabye Christensen, trans Steven Michael Nordby

A Norwegian boy who'll be loved by unhappy children everywhere
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The Independent Culture

The UK take-up of translated fiction is an obscure business. Who gets picked for publication, and why? The Half Brother, by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen, was an obvious, but potentially expensive, choice for Arcadia, its enterprising independent publisher. It is a very engaging novel, if on the big and bouncy side, and the gamble paid off.

So, naturally, Arcadia went for another book by the prolific Saabye Christensen. By some mysterious process, Herman was selected: a short story stretched barely to novel length. It was published in 1988 and filmed in 1990. Both book and film seem to be aimed at unhappy children, who are likely to empathise with the 11-year-old Herman's misery, and enjoy his quirky way of thinking and speaking.

Herman is such a little outsider that it comes as no surprise that he is bullied at school. His parents and bedridden grandfather are caring, "ordinary" people - and mildly eccentric, like everybody else in the provincial 1960s town that is Saabye Christensen's Oslo. Herman's only friendly schoolmate is Ruby, a girl with a shock of red hair who follows him around.

References to hair are important: Herman's life goes from bad to worse when his hair starts falling out. His parents try their best, feed him nice things and take him to the cinema and out fishing, but his unhappiness only deepens. The doctor mutters about stress and the barber measures a reluctant Herman for a wig.

Herman tries home cures. He refuses to give up his woolly cap for the new wig. He is first persecuted, then pitied at school. He plays truant. He says nasty things to his kind parents. Eventually, he sees a picture of Yul Brynner, feels much better and pulls himself together in time for Christmas. His presents include a pair of racing skates and a skating outfit, complete with a smart cap. He goes skating, meets Ruby and charms her. End of story.

Herman's descent into melancholia is described with amused kindness, and the charming oddities of almost everyone help to distract from the thinness of the narrative.

On the other hand, the oddities of language bring on little fits of irritation. The loss of innocence and outsider-hood are recurrent themes in Saabye Christensen's work. Given his skill as a writer, other books should rate higher than Herman. A case in point is his latest novel, Maskeblomstfamilien: a blacker, much more grown-up story about a boy haunted by fate.

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