#WITMonth: Greenland Surprise

Niviaq Korneliussen: Crimson, transl. Anna Halagar (from the Danish – the author wrote the novel in Greenlandic, then translated it into Danish herself). Also #20Books of Summer No. 13.

This short novel certainly pushed at the boundaries of what I’d previously read. I’ve never read a book by an author from Greenland (and only one set partly in Greenland, namely Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so it was venturing out into a new geographical territory. Additionally, it is a book about alcohol and partying hard and queer identity in a country which still seems largely homophobic or misogynistic, so not a familiar scene either. In fact, there was one character who turns out to be trans but seemed unaware of it until it was pointed out by someone else, and I wasn’t quite sure if that was true to life, but it left me rather uncomfortable.

The novel is narrated in five chapters, each told from a different point of view, in a very stream of consciousness style, but also in a variety of different formats: letters, diary extracts, newspaper headlines etc.  Fia is the young woman emerging from an unsatisfactory relationship with a man, who to her complete bafflement suddenly finds herself attracted to a woman. Inuk is Fia’s brother, who feels let down by his friends and spouts homophobic superstitions and insults that he has picked up from his environment. Sara and Ivik are a couple, and Sara is conflicted and confused by her instant attraction to Fia, as she wants to be loyal to her girlfriend Ivik, but Ivik herself does not seem to want to be in a sexual relationship with her. Last but not least, Arnaq is Fia’s friend and is somehow linked to all of the others, an inveterate party-goer and alcoholic, who seems to betray everyone’s confidences without any qualms.

So far, so millenial, right? Or maybe not even millenial, for these ‘finding yourself’ stories about the partying lifestyle in your early 20s have appeared in many other literary or film guises, from Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane to the TV series This Life or the more recent It’s a Sin, from Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler to the films American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. What is unique about this book is that it’s not plot driven (there are neither farcical nor grandiloquent dramatic scenes here), that it’s composed mostly of interior monologue, but above all that it takes place not in a big city – but in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland (population 18,800).

Although the young people mix Danish and English phrases into their vocabulary, compared to their counterparts elsewhere, they feel trapped on their island.

You’re on an island that will never change. You’re on an island with no way out. You’re on an island from which you can’t escape. You’re on the completely wrong island…

Out of all of them, it is Inuk who seems most aware of the gap between appearance and reality in Greenland.

You’re a Greenlander when you help develop your country… You’re a Greenlander when you respect your ancestors… You’re a Greenlander when you’re proud of your nationality…

You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic. You’re a Greenlander when you beat your partner… You’re a Greenlander when you suffer from self-loathing. You’re a Greenlander when you’re full of anger…

Our nation, she who is ancient; go to the mountain and never come back… And take your rotten children with you.

The author has quite a knack for describing the angst and failures and regrets of her generation with wry self-irony. There are some clunky passages and conversations, which could be partly the protagonists’ own awkwardness, or the author’s inexperience, or the translator struggling to convey the local feel. The book has the fast, furious pace of dance music, although it is mostly drinking rather than dancing or drugs that this group of people engage in, thinking or talking about sex rather more than actually doing it. They seem stuck in a whirlpool of repetitive, destructive behaviour, in a claustrophobic small town.

I was instantly reminded of the book See You Tomorrow by Tore Renberg, where the characters are equally hell-bent on making a mess of their lives. That book was set in oil-rich Stavanger, but the characters seemed equally trapped in poverty, poor education and few viable choices. And yet, surprisingly, it is Crimson that has the more upbeat and hopeful ending, perhaps because the author is young and more optimistic. Not a masterpiece, but perhaps I am too old for this kind of novel. Still, it would be interesting to see what Korneliussen writes next.

10 thoughts on “#WITMonth: Greenland Surprise”

  1. I think you and I had a very similar experience with this novel – my conclusion was exactly the same! I thought it had good parts but wasn’t great, but maybe I was too old for it, and it would be interesting to see what she does in future. I was really pleased to be able to read a Greenlandic novel in translation though – like you, I think it was the first time I’d done so.

    1. It’s always a good thing to expand the range of translated fiction – and I liked the fact that the story was both universal coming of age and searching for identity, as well as specific for its location.

  2. I’ve never read anything set in Greenland; and somehow when one thinks of Nordic/Scandinavian (I know there is a difference), one tends to think in terms of the ‘happiest country’ tags and not so much of the sense of frustration or claustrophobia of a sort that some may feel. This would be an interesting read I think. I will definitely be looking this one up.

    1. I find it strange that they get labelled as the ‘happiest country’ because I know they also have high rates of suicide and alcoholism and so on… But some of the Scandis are the most egalitarian societies, so that possibly helps a little. Clearly, not so much in Greenland…

  3. It does sound like a different sort of novel, Marina Sofia. And the setting is really interesting to me (I, too, have only ever visited Greenland in Miss Smilla’s…). It might not have been a masterpiece, but it does sound interesting.

  4. I read this a good while back – in German! Like you, I thought it was interesting, but not great, but the fascinating aspect here was when one of the translators commented at length on my post!

  5. I reckon I would be far too old for this novel, too – which is a shame, because like you I’m not aware of having read anything from Greenland, and only Miss Smilla partially set there. It certainly would be interesting to read more lit from that country!

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