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Henrik Nilsson, Nätterna, Veronica (The Nights, Veronica)

Forum,  2006. ISBN: 9137128469

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2006:2

Henrik Nilsson is a poet, literary critic and radio journalist from Malmö, and Nätterna,Verónica is his prose debut. What he has given us is a collection of short stories set in Lisbon, a city he clearly knows and loves. A Durrellesque gloom hangs over the place – the city is the real protagonist in Nilsson’s stories, in fact his Alexandria. The tone of the stories is invariably contemplative, allusive and deeply melancholic, with an element of inconclusiveness that sometimes mars the author’s efforts. In Sista stationen (The Last Station), Pianot i Coimbra (The Piano in Coimbra) and Nätterna,Verónica (The Nights,Verónica) one also begins to suspect that Nilsson has a philosophical or even technical problem constructing convincing endings. In the first of the aforementioned, Nilsson’s narrator notes a swaying curtain in a window and a figure moving behind it. “Perhaps it was a human being” somehow fails to evoke the response the author intended – instead, the reader is tempted to fill in the missing, “Yes, most likely...” This is a pity, as Sista stationen is one of the most effective stories in this volume. In spite of the prevailing melancholic atmosphere of this collection, the stories are all set in a bustling, vibrant part of Latin Europe. Make no mistake, then, that the reader’s grand tour here is through the Nordic imagination of Henrik Nilsson, émigré. In fact, what is being portrayed is not Lisbon at all, rather the product of an outsider applying an exaggerated romanticism arising out of his sense of longing and otherness. Of course, this is not a criticism, merely an observation. Émigré writing is almost a genre in itself; but at its best, perhaps, there should be an element of human reality as otherwise the idea of exile becomes redundant. Nilsson’s characters are all philosophical, but none of them have hands and feet, and certainly not bodily odours.Yet many readers will perhaps enjoy these fragile, thoughtful characters, all of whom seem to spend their days watching rivers, listening to pianos, or reflecting on their impending deaths. Like most poets Nilsson has a fondness for metaphor and simile, which are equally important in prose, albeit with different rules. At times one wishes he would weed his proliferating garden. In Andlig rådgivning (Spiritual Advice) he writes: “Through one of the windows she could make out the River Tejo, in the same way that one glimpses an old lover in a crowd before she disappears again...” (hackneyed reference to a lover in a crowd.) Or soon after, “particularly in the hot summer days when the river ran through the city like a hand stroking a feverish brow...” (reasonably effective.) Then we come to his old women (behind curtains, again), “immobile as herons along a riverbank” (startling, strong visual element). In the title story, we follow a brief period in the life of Eduardo, an elderly man terminally ill with cancer who spends his nights in a library, finishing off some historical research. His friendship with an African cleaner at the library does not ultimately seem important enough to constitute some sort of landmark in his life. Perhaps it would benefit Nilsson to defuse some of his romanticism and think in a more hard-headed way about the reality of human relationships? In spite of these criticisms, Henrik Nilsson has produced some good stories here, particularly Sista stationen (The Last Station), Jordbävningen (The Earthquake) and Adrianas tystnad (Adriana’s Silence), the last two of which he has used to round off the collection. Certainly Nilsson has talents he can build on, once he learns to blow some cigarette smoke at his roses.

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