Snow, by Ellen Mattson, trans. Sarah Death

A king embalmed in the stillness of defeat

Anna Paterson
Friday 04 March 2005 01:00 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Despite being set in 1718, Snow is not so much a historical novel as a fictionalised essay on defeat. This melancholy topic is ever with us, and Ellen Mattson's style matches its actuality. Her language works in the context of the recognisably "modern" people, who have stepped into the foreground of this snapshot of the past: a few days in a small harbour town, Uddevalla, on the west coast of Sweden.

Despite being set in 1718, Snow is not so much a historical novel as a fictionalised essay on defeat. This melancholy topic is ever with us, and Ellen Mattson's style matches its actuality. Her language works in the context of the recognisably "modern" people, who have stepped into the foreground of this snapshot of the past: a few days in a small harbour town, Uddevalla, on the west coast of Sweden.

They include the mayor, the town's biggest merchant, and his kind wife, both of whom join other losers in the end. They are friends of Jakob Törn, the central character. ,Once a boy soldier, Jakob was invalided out of the army and unwillingly trained in the apothecary's trade. He married a book-reading, barren and unstable woman, let a room to an impoverished and sweet-natured rebel, and employed two foundling children.

Other townsfolk wander in and out of Jakob's life, all shadowy apart from two hostile fellow-mavericks. The most remarkable character, as pitiable as everyone else but impossible to despise, is the king's physician, who arrives accompanying the corpse of his master.

And who would that be but Charles XII, saddest of all Swedish kings? Forced at the age of 18 to lead the defence of his over-extended country, Charles died after 18 years of almost continual warfare. He was shot in the head at close range, probably by a traitor's bullet, during the siege of a Norwegian border fortress. It happened on 30 November 1718, but it was Christmas Eve before the exhausted, frostbitten Swedish army arrived in Uddevalla after a terrible retreat across the mountains.

The royal medic orders Jakob to help him to embalm the body of the king. During the bitter Christmas night, the old doctor and failed apothecary carry out that ancient procedure, described with fascinated precision. The two men talk of war, philosophy and their trade, and develop a kind of respect, but their weary friendship is forlorn.

The royal entourage leaves, and Jakob wanders about, watching as his neighbours struggle dutifully to help the soldiery. He turns his back on them and walks off into the icily beautiful landscape. That evening, he drinks in a tavern with a man he hates, before going home to find the house full of wounded soldiers. Jakob fails to engage with anyone. Defeated, morally as well as in every other way, he falls asleep vaguely aware that he is locked into his town and that its future is grim.

The elegiac, almost dream-like quality of Snow has grown out of an intensely imagined moment in local history. To build a novel-length story around the embalming episode and its background, many themes were slotted into place, but never joined up enough to become - as it were - load-bearing. But the soul-chilling stillness of defeat is beautifully described, and Sarah Death's translation does the narrative justice.

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