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Jerker Virdborg, Svart krabba (Black Crab)

Norstedts,  2002. ISBN: 9113011030

Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2003:1

A Nordic country, perhaps Sweden, perhaps in our time, it is war. Virdborg’s first novel is about a sensitive military mission. In a desperate effort to stop and destroy the enemy four men have been selected to carry out the risky, dangerous task to move classified technical equipment along the coast to a communication centre further south. If successful, the soldiers Edh, Nylund, Börjesson and Granvik will be generously rewarded. Black Crab is the code name assigned to the special task. The crab moves sideways, says the colonel in his briefing to the task force, not forward or backward. That’s what you will do to confuse and surprise the enemy who expects you to attack or retreat. I haven’t spoken to my parents since the total mobilisation fours years ago, says Edh in conversation. A country at war, hostilities everywhere, rumours and an exceptionally cold winter. What kind of war is it? Invasion by a foreign enemy or civil war? It is not entirely clear and the outlook is bleak. Uncertainty and fear are spread widely but the four in the group are highly committed and preparations for the group’s departure are meticulous, and suddenly the marching orders come. It becomes clear that the group is to skate on the thick ice in the archipelago, each one with a container (contents unknown) to deliver on arrival at the communication centre. The group must move at night, a daunting task. The military presence, its hierarchy and organisation provides a backdrop of reality to a narrative evoking a surrealistic atmosphere. The author seems obsessed with meticulously recorded details and sometimes the effect is awkward. However, when Virdborg describes the hardships on the ice for the four men in the group his vocabulary and sentence structure are precise, clean and onomatopoetic. Here is Virdborg at his finest. His terse, harsh account of the group’s struggle for survival on the ice is gripping and totally convincing. The darkness, the cold, the fear, the uncertainty, the hallucinations are there, recorded persuasively. The somewhat monotonous tracing of the group’s ice-skating has momentarily become a thriller. In the end the crucial mission with the containers on the ice seems a disaster, but we don’t know. Perhaps everything isn’t lost after all. Sometimes Virdborg appears acquainted with the military establishment and its jargon against which he somehow manages to bring existential struggle to the fore. The review of Virdborg’s first book, a collection of short stories, in Swedish Book Review 2002:2 contains some biographical data on the author.

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