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Mikael Niemi, Mannen som dog som en lax (The Man Who Died Like a Salmon)

Norstedts,  2006. ISBN: 9789113016153

Reviewed by Laurie Thompson in SBR 2007:1

There is little doubt in the mind of this reviewer that Mikael Niemi is one of the best manipulators of language writing in Swedish today. He can make the Swedish language sing like Jussi Björling (or Fred Åkerström), and his sense of humour adds spice that makes it very difficult for reluctant Anglo-Saxon critics to mention Scandinavian gloom and doom.

One of the driving forces of his literary inspiration is Tornedalen, the area in the far north of Sweden where he was born, grew up and still lives. People who live by the great River Torne, which marks the border between Sweden and Finland for the latter part of its course, are usually trilingual – in Swedish, their own special kind of Finnish, and Lappish (or the Sami language, as we are supposed to call it nowadays). Thanks to his world-wide best-seller Popular Music, Niemi has become an ambassador for Tornedalen, whose citizens often feel neglected and even scorned by Stockholm, and in many ways at least as Finnish as Swedish. Niemi has forced the rest of Sweden to take notice of the far north of their vast country: good for him and them.

Unfortunately, English-language readers are unlikely to be very interested in the relationship between the southern parts of Sweden, where most Swedes live and virtually all power is based, and the inhabitants of the northern fringe, which is the core of The Man Who Died Like a Salmon. In the UK, many residents of Wales and Scotland might well recognize the circumstances. Sadly, it is unlikely that they will be given the opportunity to do so (and I hope that I am wrong to write that).

The Man Who Died Like a Salmon was trailed in Sweden as a crime novel. It is not really that, and most definitely not a police procedural. The basic plot could be the core of a crime novel, but Niemi doesn’t write conventional novels. Like many outstanding writers, he takes a genre and plays with it. Most of this book is about Tornedalen, its culture and status, and its relation with the rest of Sweden. It even contains chapters about Scandinavian history that could well have been lifted from a history book, with no attempt to incorporate them into the narrative. Several of the chapters – including some of the best ones – have strictly speaking nothing to do with the basic plot.

The crime story is intriguing and compelling, with an outrageous twist at the end which makes sense when one knows all the facts – nevertheless, I’d be surprised if any reader had spotted the murderer in advance. But what I remember most vividly about the novel are brilliantly written chapters or incidents with no direct link to the basic plot.

A chapter plays on the Swedish expression "gående bord" (a buffet meal, but literally "a walking table"): a Stockholm restaurant given that name, to which the unlikely female detective in charge of the case takes a prime suspect (who is also, preposterously, her lover) for dinner, has a naval theme: tables are suspended from the ceiling and move in a circle round the room, so that diners have to stand and pursue their meal over floors that undulate like waves. Hilarious!

What sticks most in my mind is when a passenger on the Stockholm underground (probably a junkie) sees an insect crawling down a window. He smashes it with the palm of his hand – and the insect emerges from the other side of the pane of glass and flies away. Pure poetry, and mind-provoking!

Such scenes are brilliant evocations by a brilliant writer (and there are not many of them about). The rest of the book is fascinating, but perhaps not what English-language readers might queue up to buy. Who cares about the downtrodden status of Swedes in the far north of their country?

But perhaps we ought to have access to this book in English, despite everything. Mikael Niemi is a brilliant writer who stimulates the imagination, and with so few of them about, surely we ought to make the most of them?

Laurie Thompson

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