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Roy Jacobsen: Oslo, 22nd July 2011

22nd July, 2011, is the day that will change Norway. That much is already certain – nothing will be the same again. Friday will be remembered the way we remember the assassination of Kennedy, 9/11, the murder of Olof Palme, the London bombing . . . the national tragedies and trauma of others which we have shared with them. From a distance.

That distance is absent now. The inconceivable has happened – here. It is despairingly close and painfully unreal, the way phantom pains are for those of us who experience it ”only” through the media. The targetted evil with which the act was perpetrated has no parallel in history.

Completely unimaginable.

And in the coming days and weeks it is important to hold on to precisely that. Of course, everything will have to be done to find out if there have been failures in security arrangements and precautionary measures, but we must not lose sight of the fact that not even the most rigorously controlled dictatorship can predict and prevent the insane ideas and actions of single individuals – and in this case we are dealing with the loneliest man on earth, an individual who throughout his whole adult life has rejected all that Norwegian society has to offer, who has lived in his own universe, far removed from everything we know as correctives and logical behaviour. Our great nation builders knew this: that the security and development of a democracy are created by the open and free exchange of ideas, by unwritten social contracts and mutual trust, not barbed wire and surveillance. The debate about our Norwegian naivety will of course be rekindled, the debate about the premises and vulnerability of an open society – an important debate that must never stop.

But the main point is, now that the country has changed, we have the chance to dictate the direction ourselves. Do we want to allow ourselves to be provoked into taking a harder and more uncompromising track by a nationalist screwball without a nation, or do we want to choose our own course?

We have a choice.

And we are already well on the way to making this choice, by giving succour to the injured and their families, by attempting to the best of our limited abilities to show compassion for the impossible situation in which they find themselves. We see before us the heroic young people who stood up and helped one another, endangering their own lives, as the horror struck; we acknowledge and feel proud of the volunteers who stepped forward in great numbers, of the throngs of police officers, emergency teams and medical staff who over the last few days have given their utmost and more. We can state with gratitude that they have all shown us what we already knew, but perhaps do not always think about, that the Norwegian people are fundamentally a united, civilised nation, a nation capable of humane acts and compassion.

We know who we are and what we stand for. What we are seeing now on our TV screens, on the Net and in newspapers, is the Norwegian national character at its best. We see leaders who can speak, feel and think. We see the wounded and their families desperate yet dignified in their suffering. We see the media exhibiting mindful concern. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs said yesterday: The Norway that emerges from this will not be different from the one we know. All the evidence suggests he is right. Precisely because in our hearts we understand what we have witnessed has not been a symptom of a sick society but the catastrophic consequences of one unstable psyche – and a living democracy’s ability to stand firm. As a result the perpetrator will lose on all fronts.

Translated by Don Bartlett

Roy Jacobsen Reads From Child Wonder

A video of Roy Jacobsen reading from Don Bartlett and Don Shaw’s translation of Child Wonder. Finn, who lives in Oslo with his mother, half-sister and a lodger named Kristian, is persuaded to join Kristian on a skiing trip, an excursion that

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Norwegian children would normally accompany their fathers on. Up on the mountain, Finn discovers that the lodger has a dark side not previously hinted at. To read

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along with Jacobsen, click on the “cc” button at the bottom right of the video.


Interview With Roy Jacobsen

Child Wonder, a dazzling coming of age novel set in 1960s Oslo, was published by MacLehose Press this month in a translation by Don Barlett with Don Shaw. Visiting London two weeks ago, Jacobsen agreed to be the first author to be interviewed on film for the MacLehose website: the first of many. He talks about the social context of the novel, Norway’s transformation from one of Europe’s poorest countries to one of its richest, how he began to write, and meeting Jose Saramago.


The Jacobsen Summer Party

A small gathering in the garden at MacLehose Towers to celebrate the publication of Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen.


Miska greets a particular friend of his


In full swing


Roy Jacobsen


Translators Nick Caistor and Euan Cameron with Razia Sultanova


Roy with designer Monica "Lieutenant" Reyes and the editor known only as Pengles

Child Wonder: A Translator’s Address

This Wednesday, at a lunch at the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence to mark the publication of Child Wonder, Don Bartlett, who co-translated the novel, rose to offer a few words of admiration for Roy Jacobsen, the author. It was a rare occasion for a translator to tell an author in person

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exactly what he thinks of his work. It was a day to reflect on the pleasures of translation, so often overlooked in favour of highlighting the pains.

Mr Ambassador, ladies and gentlemen, Roy. I have been invited to say a few words on the occasion of this book launch. Normally, I would run a mile to avoid such an invitation. However, the chance to speak to you, Roy, about the two books I have co-translated with Don Shaw is too good an opportunity to miss. It is strange to think that I have never spoken to you about the experience of translating you, and much stranger that I have never expressed an opinion to you about The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles or Child Wonder.

My first contact with your writing was when Christopher MacLehose asked me to write a reader’s report on what was to become The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. I read it in one sitting, and I had that experience of joy you have after reading a book you love. I think I concluded the reader’s report with: “This is a gem”. Later, when asked to translate it, through pressure of time, I asked Don Shaw to read it as well, and he had the same experience. It’s a gem, he confirmed. And why? First of all, because of the theme: one of society’s outcasts, the village idiot, teaches invading soldiers about survival skills, civility, morality, being decent. Next, the structure: a neat switch between first-person narrative for the story and third-person for the post-Winter War peace. And a grim humour. And not one cheap trick in sight. Most of all, though, it was the language that did it for me. Unsentimental, pared down, sculpted, succinct, precise, calibrated, varied, not a word too many, not a word too few. Longish sentences that move to their own rhythm and their own rules. And this was the challenge of the translation. Could the same be done with English? We thought so, and eventually Roy’s incomparable style carried the day. And readers liked it. Reviews were good. It was also short-listed for the Impac Prize. In a way, though, the apogee of your success took place in this very room. At a dinner, here, the previous ambassador’s wife told me that she had read the translation and was so enthusiastic that she went out and bought two more copies, so that, as she said, she could put a copy in each of the guest rooms to prove to her guests how good modern Norwegian literature is. I look at The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles and still feel it is a gem. I like all the books I have translated, but in my opinion this is the best.

Or at least it was. Until Child Wonder came along. This book has a very different theme, of course, but there is the same uplifting message of basic decency, there are new, wonderful characters, and it is packed with humour and keen observation. And there is the same unsurpassable attention to linguistic detail, with a wide range of register, grammatical structure, sentence pattern and vocabulary. Again the writing is concise, pared, meticulously trimmed and crafted. And our editors have the experience and horizon to cope with a non-traditional style. But there are the same translation problems. Where some writers might take a page and a half to describe a scene, you might do the same in one sentence, and it works. It works really well. However, this is not good news for the poor translator. Translating you, Roy, is no walk in the park, as I am sure you must know. You have to read very, very carefully, take the compressed sentences or compact images apart and then reassemble them. Test how the parts fit. Test the rhythm. It takes a lot of time and thought. And two heads in these circumstances are definitely better than one. This might sound like a complaint, a translator’s moan, but it is not. Because I, or we, have only the greatest respect for your skill and quality. Working on this book has been challenging, arduous, exhilarating, at times hilarious, intellectually rewarding and a huge pleasure. Child Wonder is a rich, heart-warming book with universal appeal that I hope will serve to enhance your reputation in English-speaking countries even further. You deserve it. You set standards.

I couldn’t finish without thanking Roy for his kind help and also mentioning that the most serious dispute he and I have had is over the correct nomenclature for certain red berries to be found in Norway. Apparently, my first choice ‘cranberry’ doesn’t do them justice. I have therefore flirted with cowberries, whortleberries, mountain bilberries, foxberries and lingonberries, but with some exhortation from Roy – on his Telenor phone – I plumped for lingonberries in the end. In my defence, I would say that Wikipedia indicates there is a long-standing confusion between cranberries and lingonberries …

I would like to propose a toast to Roy and to the success of Child Wonder:


Don Bartlett, London, 2011

Child Wonder was published this week.

A Look Ahead at Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen

26 May is the date of publication for Roy Jacobsen’s Child Wonder, a tremendously warm and life-affirming coming of age story set in 1960s Oslo, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. Jacobsen’s last novel to be published in English, Burnt-out Town of Miracles – about the Winter War between Finland and Russia – was shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize. Jacobsen has written a short foreword to Child Wonder, fixing it in is social and historical context, which is probably the best possible introduction to the novel:

My heroes are kids. Brave, struggling kids. Growing up in a working-class area outside Oslo in the early sixties – a time of confusion, excitement, unrefined and rather rough social experimentation. Before oil. Before anybody had any money at all. When a social-democratic welfare state was no more than a vague and desperate idea, so unlike the nouveau-riche society it produced within just a few decades. This was a change so abrupt, radical and unheard of in Norway’s history that all that is left of it is an ambiguous nostalgia and real stories on that eternal subject: how to lose one’s innocence without losing one’s soul. This novel is dedicated to those kids who made it. And to those who didn’t. I love them all.

Roy Jacobsen

As a fun aside, Jacobsen is so well known in Norway that he has appeared in mobile phone adverts on television. The scenes set during his childhood faithfully evoke the Oslo of the novel.

You can also watch an advert for the Norwegian edition of the novel on the publisher’s website.