Albert Bonniers förlag, 2004. ISBN: 9100104426
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:1
Addressing an audience at the Gothenburg Book Fair in September 2004, Ellen Mattson described Splendorville, her sixth book, as a story of sorrow and loss. She spoke of the ambivalence and duality, personified here in the central character Dr. Esparto, that are characteristic of her novels. She said it was hard to know whether to label this one a love story, an adventure story or even an illusion. It is certainly true that her novels defy conventional categorization, and are all very different from each other. Leading Swedish writer and critic Sigrid Combüchen in her review of Splendorville (Dagens Nyheter, 15.9.04) goes so far as to say that we are faced here with an author engaged in constant genre renewal. “Ellen Mattson is bold, daring to take big risks and be different. Faint praise is an inadequate response here; she is a great writer.” The book was chosen as the lead title (accompanied by a translated extract) in Bonniers 2004 Englishlanguage catalogue, and was also nominated for the Swedish Radio listeners’ prize. Sun-bleached Splendorville is a first person story, set in the 1920s though the time and place are not specified. The narrator, calling herself Dr. Esparto, tells us she lost her mother early and was brought up by a tribe in the desert of North Africa where her father, an eminent European archaeologist, was busy with excavations before the desert claimed his life. His daughter trained as a doctor and has been in general practice for some years in a small desert town she calls “Splendorville”. She has a close friend in her former lover, the local, French-born police chief Fred, who is concerned by escalating local tensions. Dr. Esparto, still nostalgic for the freedom of nomadic life on the windswept plains, has no great sense of calling in her work. She is an introverted figure, restless yet becalmed. She loves the timelessness of Splendorville: its narrow alleyways, flat roofs, starry night sky, its abandoned princely palace and old city walls. Yet there are unsettling glimpses of a later phase in her life, of mental illness, therapy and a modern city setting. Such mysteries deepen and Esparto remains an enigma. An Amer-ican film crew comes to town to make a Valentino-style Sheikh movie in these last years of silent films, and takes up residence in the prince’s palace. Dr. Esparto is both repelled and attracted by their presence. Progress in the filming is hindered by the unrealistic and shifting demands of the highly-strung director Sylvia. She has blind faith in her moodily uncooperative leading lady Lesley, to the frustration of the vain leading man. The international nature of the film company allows Ellen Mattson to play with national stereo-types, especially the Noel Cowardesque young Englishmen in their flannels and school scarves, and above all the Americans, raised on steak and orange juice, whom Fred calls superficial but Dr. Esparto finds attractively simple and transparent. It is tempting to see modern political overtones in a story of a contingent of Americans imposing their way of life on a foreign place: one of the more perceptive members of the film crew likens the onward march of Hollywood culture to the American greed for oil. As days on location are wasted, the locally-hired extras mutiny from sheer boredom and the actors fill their time with cocktails, dancing, affairs and hangovers; all except Lesley, who prefers solitary walks. A tall, aloof, trousered figure, sharing the doctor's almost androgynous air, Lesley contrasts vividly with the conventional femininity of the other actresses. There is something about her that infatuates Dr. Esparto. Tempers run high in the close atmosphere of an approaching desert storm, and the film crew turn to Esparto for emotional and artistic advice as well as medical expertise, and accept her suggestion to film the long-anticipated “orgy” scene at an abandoned desert temple. The expedition ends in tragedy, followed the next day by murder, and a hostile confrontation between the locals and the film crew, leaving the latter no option but to flee, taking the doctor and a mortally wounded Fred with them. A shattered Esparto returns to Europe and embarks on the new life glimpsed earlier in the book, at the clinic of one Dr. Poliakoff. But she remains an unreliable narrator, wondering at times whether she has imagined some of the people and events she catalogues. She freely admits to the reader that she invented exotic “memories” for Dr. Poliakoff to psychoanalyse. We cannot truly tell what is reality and what is fiction in the doctor’s story with its disorientating, compellingly dreamlike feel.