Fiction – paperback; Overlook Duckworth; 236 pages; 2004. Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes.
Hash is one of those kooky, surreal books that plays with your mind. The author, Torgny Lindgren, is a prize-winning author from Sweden who currently sits on the panel which selects the Nobel Prize for Literature. His books — and there are lots of them — have been translated into more than 25 languages. Sadly, only a handful seem to be available in English.
Hash, first published in 2004, is a strange odyssey involving a school teacher and a travelling clothes salesman whom together traverse the wilds of northern Sweden on an old motorbike looking for the perfect hash. Initially I assumed the hash was of the cannabis variety, but it is, in fact, a famous Swedish meat dish. Torgny describes it as follows:
Swedish hash, pölsa (dial. pysla or palscha). Dish comprising finely ground meat, usually offal, in its own jelly. Minced meat. Originally bulscha, from the Greek balsamon, deriving from a Semitic word denoting a viscous mixture of resin and fragrant volatile oils (see Balsam spruce), thence balsamic.
The story has an unusual twist, however. Well, a couple of unusual twists, if I am honest.
The first is that the travelling salesman, who calls himself, Robert Mazer, is possibly the fugitive Nazi Martin Boorman. Mazer claims to have no memory, but tells everyone he is a “refugee from war-torn Germany” and that he was raised in the district of Mecklenburg.
The second, bigger, twist is that the story occurred in 1947 and is being told in the present day by a 107-year-old newspaper reporter living in a care home. The reporter, who is nameless, has come out of forced retirement to write the story. He hasn’t written anything for 53 years, after the local newspaper editor accused him of fabricating all his reports and banning him from publication. Here is some of what the editor told him in a letter:
“For some time now after tactful inquiries from perplexed and concerned readers, we have carried out careful investigations into the veracity of the reports you have submitted over the course of the years, the all too many years, which we have published conscientiously, honestly and fearlessly.
“Having done so, we have found your reports, not to put too fine a point on it, completely devoid of any basis in fact. The reality which you appear to describe is nothing more than a figment of your imagination. The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hölback marsh never took place. The schoolhouse in Avalberg that burned down three years ago never existed. No unknown celestial body ‘with shimmering corona’ ever rose above your horizon. […]
“The individuals whose births, birthdays, marriages and, in some cases even deaths, you have reported, have never lived on this earth. On further reflection, it seems remarkable to me, not to say quite extraordinary, that you yourself actually exist.”
This letter is crucial to the rest of the book, because it plants a couple of seeds in your mind that ferment as you read further into the story. One of those seeds is this: is our narrator reliable? Is what he telling us the truth? Or is it all fabrication? Another seed: does this 107-year-old man even exist?
This is what I mean about the book playing with your mind. It’s very post-modern in that sense, and it’s also highly reminiscent of American writer Paul Auster, not necessarily in prose style, but definitely in structure and subject matter, right down to a character named after the author popping up, albeit very briefly, in the storyline. Torgny’s novel, much like anything that Auster writes, is obsessed with the notion of story-telling, memory, truth and reality. How do we know these things happened, and is it actually important? What is memory? Does truth exist?
But Torgny’s approach is slightly different: he’s not afraid of humour. There are some dark comedic moments scattered throughout this novel and some of his commentary, particularly about old age and council funding, is quite biting.
Hash also has a touch of Gothic horror about it, because most of the action takes place in an isolated village ravaged by highly infectious turberculosis. Relationships, in whatever shape they might take, can be deadly.
This is the type of novel that will appeal to readers who like postmodern literature, complete with trademark metafiction and unreliable narrators. But do beware that the book is richly littered with descriptions of offal, including its taste and texture. The warning is in the title.