Top 10 modern Nordic books | Books

With the cold wave of Nordic literature crashing on UK shores over recent years and Danish, Swedish, Greenlandic, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic authors coming to the Southbank Centre in London this month for talks and readings, I am glad to suggest 10 books for those who want to prepare themselves.

Some of the authors I choose here will be appearing at the Southbank Centre and some are featured in the anthology that I have edited with Ted Hodgkinson, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North. Others are to be found at all hours of day and night in their books.

Never in history have so many diverse books from the north been translated, and in the last five years in the UK and the USA the list has been growing. This can be seen in the success of contemporary authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sofi Oksanen, of crime novelists such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. And then we have the old guard: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hamsun, Lagerlöf, Blixen/Dinesen and the Sagas, to provide us with an impeccable pedigree.

While working on the the anthology, I was more than ever convinced that the literatures of the region have more in common that not. The dry wit, the willingness to dwell in melancholia and look at the world through its blue-tinted glasses, the social criticism that comes with bringing to light the stories of the marginalised, the exploration of style and form as integral part of diving into any given theme, the deep-felt belief in literature’s role in keeping our societies humane.

The books I’ve chosen here have all been recently published in English or are about to be. There should be something here for every boreal-minded reader to cherish in the coming winter.

1. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson (translated by Lytton Smith)
Bergsson is the grand old man of Icelandic literature and this is the novel every Icelandic author must love and resist. Written in 1966, when biographies of turn-of-the-century greats were dominating the bestseller lists in Iceland, the novel pretends to be the autobiographical musings of its ageing protagonist. Having nothing to his name but the fact that he is descended from Vikings, and the small flat where he lives in one room, renting the rest out to lodgers, Tómas does his best to prove worthy of a book of his own. Only recently translated into English, it is a fabulous feast of wilting light, with a whiff of Beckett’s Unnamable’s underpants.

2. Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (translated by Sverre Lyngstad)
If there is a motto to the books I have read by Solstad, it is: “We are born to embarrass ourselves before our destruction.” Here we follow the slow but sure decline of one Bjørn Hansen who leaves his wife and infant son for life in a small town where he becomes involved in amateur theatre, with all its petty in-fighting and jealousy. When his son turns up 18 years later, things take a darker turn.

3. The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen (translated by Gaye Kynoch)
At once the foremost stylist of contemporary Danish literature and the most provocative one, Nielsen shocked readers with the sudden beauty and tenderness of this novel. The reader is swept away by the flow of the narrative, the warmth and wit of a storyteller who presents modern tales of destiny with a fearless presentation of the bittersweet melancholy of existence.

4. Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Herbert Lomas)
This is a beautifully constructed fable for our times, where Sinisalo addresses humanity’s changing relationship with nature. So, if you have been waiting to discover a novel about a young and lovesick photographer named Angel who finds and takes in a catlike, feral troll kid, this is your book. But it is far from whimsical, and a subplot about a Filipino mail-order bride kept locked up in one of the flats of Angel’s building poses questions about our human to human relationships as well.

Tomas Tranströmer.



Speaking to all times … Tomas Tranströmer. Photograph: Scanpix Sweden/Reuters

5. New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robin Fulton)
A collective cheer could be heard from the north when this Swedish poet was awarded the Nobel prize in 2011. He was the first Nordic laureate in decades and the one we all hoped for. His poems are never sentimental but always full of emotion, never sweet but always beautiful — always rich in images while appearing minimal, always of their time while speaking to all times and the people at their mercy.

6. Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (translated by Anna Halager)
Korneliussen’s novel tells the story of a group of friends living in modern-day Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city of 18,000 inhabitants. Like young people anywhere, they are grappling with coming of age in world they never made, discovering their sexual identities and futures. Told in emails, messages, journals, short stories, it transports us to a cold homeland where the blood runs hot.

7. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra)
Nors’s minimalist, experimental stories read as if they were thorough reports on the complexity behind the everyday situations men and especially women find themselves in. She is a master of the undercurrent, and the simplicity of her sentences makes them magnets for the reader’s own contribution to the reading experience. We can’t help mirroring ourselves in the characters, matching our own attempts at making sense of what has brought us to the moment of truth in similar situations.

8. The Tower at the Edge of the World by William Heinesen (translated by W Glyn Jones)
Heinesen is the last of the 20th-century masters of Nordic letters still to be discovered by a global readership. A match with Iceland’s Halldór Laxness, Denmark’s Karen Blixen and Norway’s Knut Hamsun, he was the one who wrote from the smallest of the northern worlds, the tiny community of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. I use every opportunity I get to bang the drum for his books. Now his poetic evocation of life on an island that to the vast ocean is “just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall” is being published in a new English translation. I hope some readers of these words will follow him there.

9. The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner)
This novel’s protagonist is the daughter of a suicidal alcoholic living in a deteriorating mental hospital. If one believes, as I do, that investigating the harshest things in life through the literary use of language – where vulnerability and cruelty, confusion and determination, are described with equal precision – is one of our main tools to keep ourselves grounded and humane, then Stridsberg’s story is vital reading.

10. Inside Voices, Outside Light by Sigurður Pálsson (translated by Martin Regal)
Inspired by the dark surrealism of the Atom Poets – the group of modernists who broke Icelandic literature out of the confines of tradition in the years after the second world war – Pálsson’s poetic world is at once highly lyrical and playful. Everyday life inspires contemplations of the tragic optimism of the human being; for at the core of man’s many balancing acts – dancing, slapstick routines, staying in love, keeping the head high – there is always the threat of destruction, and the only antidote to our awareness of our fatality is poetry as it was practised by Pálsson.

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Britain accused of unlawfully deporting Afghan asylum seekers | World news

Britain and other European countries have been accused of breaching international law, as it emerged that the number of asylum seekers forced to return to Afghanistan has tripled at a time when civilian casualties in the country are at a record high.

According to a report by Amnesty International, unaccompanied children and Christian converts at risk of persecution, torture and death – a status that should legally guarantee asylum – have been removed from European countries.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people returned by European countries to Afghanistan nearly tripled, from 3,290 to 9,460. This corresponds to a marked fall in recognition of asylum applications, from 68% in September 2015 to 33% in December 2016, official EU statistics show.

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The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has reported that 2016 was the deadliest year on record for civilians in the country, with 11,418 people killed or injured. In the first six months of 2017 alone, UNAMA documented 5,243 civilian casualties in attacks by armed groups, including the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State.

Amnesty’s report, Forced Back to Danger: Asylum-Seekers Returned from Europe to Afghanistan, further accuses European governments, including the UK, of being “determined” to return young Afghans despite being well aware of the unfolding “horrors” in the country.

It claims that in a leaked 2016 document, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed”, as well as the likelihood that “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” will increase. The report further claims that the agencies then stated in the document that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future”.

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It quotes Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s finance minister, who told the Afghan parliament that the government needed to accept the returnees in order to guarantee aid. “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying.

The Amnesty report adds: “Similarly, a confidential Afghan government source called [the policy] a ‘poisoned cup’ that Afghanistan was forced to drink in order to receive development aid. The country is highly aid-dependent, with nearly 70% of Afghanistan’s annual income dependent upon international donors.”

In 2016, the five European countries that returned the most Afghans were: Germany (3,440), Greece (1,480), Sweden (1,025), the UK (785) and Norway (760).

Between 2007 and 2015, the report notes, 2,018 young people who had sought refuge in the UK as unaccompanied child asylum seekers were deported to Afghanistan. Despite Kabul being the most dangerous province for citizens, the UK Home Office’s policy guidance states that “return or relocation to Kabul is, in general, considered reasonable”.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said: “By rejecting the vast majority of claims for asylum by Afghans, the UK is setting a worrying precedent which risks encouraging other countries to do likewise. If the government doesn’t stop deporting Afghans, it will have blood on its hands.”

Amnesty International researchers interviewed several families who described their experiences after being forcibly returned from European countries – losing loved ones, narrowly surviving attacks on civilians and living in fear of persecution.

The researchers highlighted the case of a woman and her family who fled Afghanistan in 2015 after her husband was kidnapped, beaten and released in return for a ransom. After travelling for a month, they arrived in Norway, where the authorities “denied their asylum claim and gave them a choice between being detained before being deported or being given €10,700 to return voluntarily”.

A few months after returning to Afghanistan, the husband disappeared and was later discovered to have been killed, presumably by kidnappers.

Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher on refugee and migrant rights, said: “In their determination to increase the number of deportations, European governments are implementing a policy that is reckless and unlawful. Wilfully blind to the evidence that violence is at a record high and no part of Afghanistan is safe, they are putting people at risk of torture, abduction, death and other horrors.”

The Home Office said: “The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection. Where a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection removal is only enforced when we and the courts conclude that it is safe to do so, with a safe route of return.”

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‘It’s pretty high’: runner tells how he scaled Everest twice in a week | World news

Forty-eight hours after racing up Mount Everest twice in a week, Kilian Jornet flew home to Norway where, rather than popping corks and collapsing into bed, he celebrated by going for a run with his girlfriend and sitting down to a meal of bread, salad and vegetables.

“To be honest, I’m not really one for celebrations,” he tells the Guardian. “After weeks of rice and nothing fresh, it was nice to eat a salad. I just wanted something normal.”

The muted festivities were in keeping with the spartan philosophy that propelled the 29-year-old Spaniard to the summit without fixed ropes and supplementary oxygen on both occasions last month.

Despite suffering from food poisoning on his first ascent – and coming within minutes of the 16 hours and 45 minutes record set 21 years ago by the Italian climber Hans Kammerlander on his second – Jornet’s reflections on his double sojourn at the roof of the world are similarly laconic.

“I was happy and tired,” he says. “But when you’re up there you’re pretty much concentrating on the moment and thinking about getting down again. The emotion hits you more when you’ve come down again and that’s when you feel most satisfied.”

Everest, he adds, is “pretty high. Even the big mountains seem small from up there. But it’s pretty tough as there’s very little oxygen. But apart from that, it’s a mountain like any other – albeit taller”.

Kilian Jornet



Jornet says he had not planned to make two ascents but made the decision as he descended from the first. Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Jornet, who grew up in the Pyrenean region of Cerdanya in northern Catalonia, has been climbing since his parents took him into the mountains when he was 18 months old.

“My love of mountains has always come from them,” he says. “I guess they’re happy [about Everest]. They can see that I’m living a life that fulfils and that’s all any parent wants.”

The awe and sense of freedom he first felt as a toddler have never left him, while the years of climbing, skiing and long-distance running have taught him endurance, discipline and, equally importantly, how to deal with fear.

Even with the stomach cramps and vomiting that blighted his first ascent of Everest, he says he never felt afraid.

“I’ve spent years training and preparing and that gets you ready for being in exposed situations. But the important thing is to stay calm so that you make the right decisions on the mountain.

“If you run into problems, I think you need to be very cool and not let your emotions get the better of you. That comes with years of practice. That way, if there’s bad weather or other problems, you’re not scared.”

The route up Everest

Although he had not planned to make two climbs, the idea of having another go occurred as he returned to base camp.

“As I was coming down after the first ascent, I thought, ‘I normally recover pretty well and if I’m OK and there’s a window of good weather I’ll give it another go’. You have to make the most of it.”

Jornet’s attempt to set new records for the fastest ascents of some of the world’s best-known mountains has already seen him scale Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in Europe, Denali in North America and Aconcagua in South America.

But with the trail-running season under way, he is looking to mix things up a bit.

“I tend to live day by day and see what possibilities each one has. I look to do a bit of everything: competitions, climbing, skiing. Variety suits me, it’s about different feelings, different emotions.”

Jornet takes a break on his first ascent



Jornet takes a break on his first ascent Photograph: Kilian Jornet

He says his motivation is simple and very personal. “I do it because I like it. Since I was a kid, mountains have always been the place where I feel happiest. I like to keep trying new things and doing different things that help you learn more about yourself.

“Going up into those mountains is an interior journey, it’s about knowing how far you can push yourself and how you face the fears that we all have.”

Leaving aside a youthful flirtation with separatism – “when I was a kid, I wanted Cerdanya to become independent because I was sick of people from Barcelona coming in at the weekends” – Jornet describes himself as semi-nomadic and a sceptic when it comes to flags, nations and the notion of staying still.

“I’ve lived almost all of my life in France and now I live in Norway, so the whole question of countries, borders and nationalities isn’t something I really understand too well,” he says.

Despite the wandering and perseverance, however, there are one or two fears Jornet has yet to conquer. “I don’t like cities very much and I’m not really a beach person either. Mountains suit me best.”

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