Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl tr. K E Semmel

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl translated by K E Semmel, October 2016, 480 pages, Hardback, Oneworld Publications, ISBN: 1780748892

Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)

For a long time he just wanted to be left alone. Without smiling. Without any kind of pleasure. Not even the sunshine or the starlight. He lay quietly, dispassionately observing the sky. But in the end this proved difficult. In the end the small pleasures found him.

New Year’s Eve, Fuerteventura, Canary Islands.
The mountainside surrounding Erhard’s shack is completely dark and silent. It’s why Erhard Jørgensen, el ermitano, has loved living here for nearly eighteen years. Just him and the two goats, Laurel and Hardy. After more drinking Erhard decides he needs a girlfriend; a warm body, company. But he doesn’t have much to offer. In a few years she would have to empty his pot, shave him and pull off his shoes at the end of a day’s driving the taxi. Erhard thinks of Raul and Beatriz preparing for their New Year party, an invitation he refused. Beatriz’s perfume. No, he will think about the hairdresser’s daughter whom he has never met and seen only once; think of her sitting at his dinner table. Much too young. Thirty years difference. Not his type. He doesn’t know why he thinks of her so much. It must be the fault of her mother, the hairdresser. She is always talking about her, suggesting it’s time she found someone, someone like him. She even tells him where her daughter lives. Maybe he should drive over there now. Invite her out, get this over with. Erhard knows its the drink talking but he gets up and jams his legs into a pair of trousers from the clothes line. The goats run off into the darkness.

Erhard’s car hurtles down the mountain track towards the city and he swerves to avoid a goat. Was that Hardy? Surely not so far from the shack? Distracted, he doesn’t notice the oncoming car until too late. It swooshes past him, knocking his side mirror flat. He shouts at the car in Danish, rolling down his window to straighten the shattered mirror. That car looked like Bill Haji’s. Never mind, he must get to the hairdresser’s daughter.

The windows of her apartment are dark. Erhard walks to a familiar bar, orders a Rusty Nail and buys a round for the two olive farmers in the corner. At a quarter to midnight, he pays his bill and walks back to the hairdresser’s daughter’s flat. He can hear quiet sounds within the apartment and he raps on the door, catching sight of his wrinkled face in the nameplate as he does so. What has he got to offer? “I’m coming,” calls a soft voice from inside the apartment. And Erhard panics, running down the stairs and into the street, hugging the walls, fumbling his way into his car. He drives out of the city, back to his mountain, foot to the floor and only applies the brakes when his headlights pick out a giant turtle shape in the middle of the rough track. Bill Haji’s car, upside down, shattered windows, one of its doors hanging open. Erhard gets out. The sky explodes with the city’s midnight fireworks and as his eyes readjust to the darkness Erhard spots movement around the upturned car. Wild dogs, perhaps part of a pack still out there in the darkness. And he sees Haji’s body, what’s left of his face. Then a glint in the darkness, gold, a spark ignited by the firework bursts: Haji’s distinctive ring, on the ground near one of the wheels – embedded into the flesh of Haji’s severed finger. Erhard reaches for the finger. The feasting dogs growl. He goes back to his car and presses its wheezing horn, enough, momentarily, to drive the dogs away. He hurries back, lies down, stretches out and reaches for the finger whilst staring into Haji’s ruined face and eyes. Find the boy. A voice clear in his head. The whining of the dogs becomes agitated. He grabs the finger and backs off to his car. Nine plus one equals ten; his own nine fingers and Bill Haji’s one. Ten fingers. He is whole again...

The plot trigger for Erhard Jørgensen – 67 years old, Danish ex-pat, nine-fingered piano tuner, taxi driver and central figure of Thomas Rydahl’s novel THE HERMIT – is a drunken excursion with his friends, Raul and Beatriz, one stormy night, to watch the lightning down on the coast. But they find instead a crowd gathered round the spectacle of a stranded car. A police team with lights are examining its back seat and a cardboard box containing the body of a dead infant in a nest of newspaper cuttings – Danish newspaper cuttings. Soon the police are at Erhard’s door, asking for help with translating the cuttings found with the dead child. But when they quickly close the case – who wants the tragic story of a child’s death in a resort struggling to keep its tourist trade? – Erhard is driven to find answers. How did the car get onto the beach? Where and who is the mother? The hunt draws Erhard into conflict with powerful, unscrupulous men. It also begins the slow, painful process of stripping him of his Hermit status and forcing him back into some kind of relationship with the world.

Danish writer and translator Thomas Rydahl’s own inspirations are writers such as Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami and the character-strong qualities of Stephen King. Even though would-be publishers asked for more of a genre approach in his novel writing, it wasn’t his intention to write a crime novel. But one day he spotted a guitar in a cab-driver’s boot and Erhard Jørgensen was born. And in telling Erhard’s story, Rydahl found he had become “a crime writer”. So much so that in 2015 THE HERMIT became the first début novel to win a Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel. Television rights have already been sold and Rydahl has finished the second in what he hopes to be a trilogy featuring Jørgensen.

THE HERMIT reads well in this translation by K E Semmel – translator of Karin Fossum and Jussi Adler Olsen amongst others. It is a fascinating novel, rich in characters, which combines menace with empathy as it twists towards its conclusion driven by Erhard's impulsive, unpredictable character and his struggle with his own entrenched “Hermit” existence. A big book, I nevertheless loved reading it and can’t recommend it highly enough to fans of Nordic Noir searching for a warmer climate.

Lynn Harvey, October 2016

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