Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
First-person narrator Frank Larson, a university lecturer in America, returns to his native Sweden to attend a conference in Lund and present a paper on the (real) early-twentieth-century literary critic Olle Holmberg. Descending to a basement toilet, he finds the exit locked and wanders subterranean corridors to emerge on the street in a Lund city and university of the 1920s. Instead of his own scheduled lecture, he finds Olle Holmberg himself at the podium, and for fear of being disbelieved decides to adapt to the period in which he finds himself, becoming increasingly fascinated by it and scarcely thinking of the wife, sons and colleagues he is unable to contact in present-day America. Earning money for his hotel bill by writing a version of the story of his own time-shift for a newspaper, and funding his travel from further writing, he adjusts his mode of speech and dress to his new era and sets off for Amalfi to seek out his longdead but then 19-year-old mother-to-be, persuading her to accompany him to an archaeological site in Spain to which a chance encounter has brought him an invitation. He employs the figure of the Lady of Elche, the focus of the excavation, as both divine and human symbol to express cryptically and indirectly to his 19-year-old companion the regret and guilt he feels for the failures in his relationship with the mother she was to become.
This short novel, with its amusing yet unsettling use of the device of a door to another dimension, which might represent a descent into the psyche but has more references to the historicopolitical, seems to have the pretensions of an existential quest, and for Swedish readers it may comprise a gentle allusion to Holmberg’s major work on dreams and literary creation. But it will remain for most readers as insubstantial as the dream it finally reveals itself to be. Its unlikely plot may be excused by the dream format, but it lacks local colour, apart from such superficial motifs as horses and motor vehicles, and the time-shift is not sufficiently exploited, despite passing mention of Spengler and other historical personages and the perspective of the narrator’s knowledge of the future.
The theme of rebirth and redemption, personal and political, and coming to terms with the past, was so much better dealt with in Wijkmark’s longer novel Dacapo (1994), a successful blend of social, cultural and psychological themes in thriller format. The book under review is more of a novella which seems to promise more than it delivers. Let us hope for another major novel, one that perhaps might match his still un-Englished Dressinen (The Trolley) from 1983, a masterpiece of narrative that took a man and three apes on a transatlantic voyage on a converted railway trolley in an allegorical critique of civilisation predating - and outclassing - Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.