‘Hash’ by Torgny Lindgren

Hash

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.

Finally, thanks to Philip Young from Scoop! Journalists in Fiction and Mediations for tipping me off about this one.

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15 thoughts on “‘Hash’ by Torgny Lindgren

  1. I am betraying my lack of intellectual credentials here, but I have to admit I read half or one-third of this a few years ago and had to put it down – I could not follow it and found it very boring as a result. A limitation in me rather than the book, I am sure.
    I attempted it because Frank Wilson (Books Inq) made it his best book of the year one year and I like Scandinavian fiction so thought I’d give it a try. Unfortunately his Phila Inq review is behind a paywall but the first para is here: http://business.highbeam.com/794/article-1G1-125946646/offally-nice

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  2. Hi Maxine.
    I can understand why you had trouble following this book — it’s far from a straightforward narrative. I don’t particularly like postmodern fiction — for instance, I HATED “If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller” because I could not follow it and thought it pretentious waffle. But I do like Auster’s work and Torgny seems to fall into the same camp, but with more comedic elements.
    Thanks for the link to Frank’s review. I love the headline “offally nice” – such a great pun for a book about Swedish hash meat!

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  3. I did think of you when I read this, Kevin. It’s not really a book about journalism, but there’s enough references to classify it as a “journalism novel”. It poses some interesting questions about what is truth, which is essentially what journalism is all about — seeking and reporting the “truth” — as well as looking at the blurring of lines between fact and fiction.
    Glad you liked the quote — it comes very early in the book and made me laugh out loud. Some of the reports he made up, in particular the “The dramatic week-long struggle to rescue an elk from Hölback marsh”, were just preposterous!

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  4. I was all keen to read this until you mentioned the offal. Vegans and offal aren’t really a good mix. :)It sounds intriguing though. I do like the way postmodern fiction messes with your mind. Maybe I can skim the offal parts…

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  5. Kevin, did you see my review of “A Sunday by the pool at Kingali”? That’s a kind of journalism novel too, albeit the main character is a broadcast journalist (radio & TV), although there’s not a lot about journalism in it. It’s mainly a book about the terrible things people do to one another in war-torn Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Still, the chap is Canadian, so that has to be another incentive for you to read the book! 😉

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  6. Haha… Yes, you might find this a bit stomach-churning. I don’t eat red meat and I certainly wouldn’t touch offal with a 10-foot barge pole, but somehow I was able to distance myself from what they were eating. I actually found some of the descriptions of the meat quite hilarious, because he goes into great detail to describe something which is basically just grey and spongey!

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  7. As it happened the book arrived yesterday. I will admit that I have been avoiding it. I was supervising Canada’s largest news agency during the genocide and I’m afraid there was just too much reality for me to want a fictional account (and I heard too many Romeo Dallaire speeches). Now that we are a few years on, I am ready to give it a try.

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  8. I’m not certain if this is a book for me, but if it reminds you of Auster then I know exactly the person to whom I should give a copy, so that might just be a birthday present solved. By the way ‘hash’ to me means corned beef and onions with a sliced potato topping. I think this might make me sad:)

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