Odin's Island, by Janne Teller, trans Anne Born

A parable of peace concealed in Norse latitudes
Click to follow

Odin, chief Norse god, wanders the world in the form of a one-eyed old man who has sacrificed his other eye for knowledge of past, present and future. His ways are a lone hunter's, his principal companions his horses and his two ravens, Thought and Memory. But he also presides over Valhalla, where he receives those dead who in life have proved themselves heroes and whom he will mobilise in the final battle, Ragnarok.

Ragnarok is one of the most remarkable features of Norse mythology, a conflict between the more human-like gods, like Odin, and the anti-human giants, and ending with the cancellation of both sides. Afterwards, a new, peaceful order of existence can come about. Strangely, despite the savagery, the bleakness of believing in a god who won't prevail and the absence of any rewards for morality, the cult of Odin is not unappealing. It encourages acceptance of things as they are, however harsh and wild, and posits the possibility of something altogether different and kindlier emerging from concealment in our universe.

Janne Teller has, with imaginative daring, harnessed Odin to our own times and culture. In her novel, Odin turns up in present-day Denmark after paying a visit to a nearby island, where the lifestyle suggests that harmony which could arise after Ragnarok. Abandoning a beloved injured horse and making his way in ferocious wintry weather to find a vet on "The Continent", he encounters among Danes (whom Teller calls the South Norse) total ignorance not only of himself, but also of the island.

A young, unhappily married woman and bank employee, Sigbritt, comes across the old man almost frozen to death. Something arouses in her not just pity but a respect that makes her accept his strange story. Danish authority - on many levels - behaves otherwise; for a time he is judged insane. Traditionally, wherever Odin goes, turbulence follows, and so it is now. Before long he stands bewilderedly at the centre of the fierce protests of warring social factions, among them True Christians, Born Again Christians, Muslim Militia and Muslim Modernists. Only one person realises who "Mr Odin Odin" is, and he only towards the end of this long novel, by which time terrible events have already happened.

Odin's Island's elaborate plot unfolds at a rapid pace, sometimes, for all the limpidity of Anne Born's English version, to the reader's bemusement. Much devolves on the physical nature and historical affiliations of the island, which provides, amid such pell-mell diversity, the necessary unifying symbol. The novel dates from 1999, from a world innocent of 11 September, something from time to time too apparent. But the timeless peace of its agrarian islanders consoles and, especially at its conclusion, offers hope.

Paul Binding's book on Ibsen, 'With Vine Leaves in his Hair', is published by Norvik Press