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In general terms, the word “saga” evokes images of grandiosely epic tales steeped in myth or remote history. In fact, this book’s high-sounding title, together with the obviously Scandinavian sound of its author’s name, may very well lead readers to expect something quite different from what is actually offered in its pages.

Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga, the second novel by Norwegian author Torodd Fuglesteg resembles its predecessor, The Final Ride, though it also diverges from it in quite a few ways. First of all, it is narrated in the third person – therefore lacking The Final Ride’s obvious autobiographical flavour; moreover, the presence of multiple points of view besides the main character’s lends a more realistic, multidimensional feel to the narration. However, the matter-of-fact, often unadorned style – a legacy from the author’s past experiences as a journalist – has not changed, even if the story has a much more ambitious scope, and is over twice as long as the author’s previous effort.

Organized in five rather lengthy chapters, the novel chronicles the life of a peculiar figure of “man without qualities”, his relationship with his family and the world at large. While the narration revolves around Peter Svarttjern, his family and friends are equally important to the development of the story. References to contemporary events and phenomena (first and foremost, the rise of computers and information technology) frequently crop up – especially as regards changes in the fabric of Norwegian society – but, as a whole, this backdrop often reads as a sort of alternate history, as the information is patchy and there are no dates to provide an actual timeframe. This, however, is in no way detrimental to the story, whose main focus is private rather than public.

Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga would comfortably fit in the “family saga” subgenre that includes famed literary works such as Thomas Mann’s The Buddenbrooks and Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not surprisingly, death and loss are constant presences – but then, so is life, as generation follows generation. Illness, financial and professional setbacks, and failed relationships disrupt the lives of the novel’s many characters, but optimism surfaces as the younger generations learn from their elders’ mistakes, and forge their own path in life.

Though the novel’s blurb states in no uncertain terms that Fragments is the story of “a man forgotten by everyone”, and “pointless as life itself” – therefore warning the reader that this is not an exactly uplifting read – the tale is far less gloomy than one might expect. The author’s main concern are those who, on account of personality disorders or other mental problems, have shut themselves out of a “normal” life – presented in all their vulnerable humanity with deep empathy, albeit without whitewashing. Peter Svarttjern is what today would be called a nerd: computers become his lifeline as he grows up in surroundings that become increasingly alien, even hostile, cultivating his mostly solitary hobbies (such as fly-fishing, jigsaw puzzles, and subsequently motorbike rides) and his unflagging work ethic to the detriment of human relationships. Especially in the second half of the story, he comes across like an outsider trying to look in, and never being able to recreate the simplicity of his earlier life as regards human relationships. On the other hand, it is made clear that he does have feelings for the people in his life, both family and friends, and that any loss or falling out wounds him deeply. Particularly poignant is his almost non-existent relationship to women, who often see him as a freak and ultimately cause him to adopt a cold, distant attitude as a defense against further rejection.

The author’s own rather conflicted relationship with his native country, which was also explored in The Final Ride, is one of the central themes of the novel. Like the author, Peter Svarttjern leaves Norway when still young, and most of his life unfolds away from it. Unlike the author, though, he never forms an attachment any of the countries where he spends his working life, and never manages to sever his ties with Norway – no matter how hard he tries. In the way of many expatriates (something I personally know all too well), he nurtures a love-hate relationship with his native country, which he leaves gladly (and with good reason), but which then becomes an object of yearning almost immediately after moving away.

The use of a third-person narrator with multiple points of view allows for a more objective take on the events, if compared to the intensely personal perspective displayed on The Final Ride. However, the narrator is not as detached that one might expect, as if he/she was an observer with at least a partial interest in the plight of the characters – an aspect highlighted by the detailed way in which the relationships within Peter’s family and with the outside world are illustrated. His tendency to repeat the name of the subject of each paragraph reinforces his focus on each character, so that the events are laid out almost as in a list, often dispensing with the use of connectors and other words that give a written text a sense of natural flow.

The author saves his descriptive, almost lyrical vein for the paragraphs that have different animals as protagonists frequently interrupting the narrative – a way of emphasizing the ultimate pointlessness of human existence (with all its attending toil and strife) in the grand scheme of things. For those passages, he reveals a deeply sensitive, emotional understanding of nature, and a touching identification with non-human creatures. In fact, the story opens and closes with the appearance of the same animals, as if minimizing the true relevance of the human-centred narrative in comparison with the endless cycle of nature.

Even if Torodd Fuglesteg’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and his chosen subject matter is not always comfortable to read about, his genuine love of writing and storytelling shines out of every page. Moreover, his reluctance to patronize either the reader or his characters, together with his obvious empathy for the many failings of human nature, make his work likely to appeal to sensitive, insightful readers. At the moment, the author is already at work on his third novel, which he states will be shorter though considerably darker in tone. The official release is planned by the end of this year, or the early months of 2015.

Links:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IPRD688
http://www.toroddfuglesteg.com/
http://toroddfuglesteg.blogspot.co.uk/
http://thesoundoffightingcats.blogspot.co.uk/

 

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The present review is likely to be an exception in a blog that has been so far exclusively dedicated to music. In fact, this is the review of a book that has nothing to do with music – except for the fact that its author is as big as a music fan as I am. He is also one of the best friends I have made in the past few years (even if we have not yet met face to face), and someone whose dedication to the cause of progressive rock vastly eclipses mine.

With plenty of experience as a journalist and a blogger, Torodd Fuglesteg (a native of Norway who currently resides in Glasgow, Scotland) loves to write about a wealth of subjects, from his frequent bicycle rides to weightier commentaries about the state of the world  – not to mention short but informative album reviews. The Final Ride is his first full-length book, a semi-autobiographical novel published in e-book form in the summer of 2012 that blends fact and fiction in a way that may prove either frustrating or intriguing for readers –  or both. Though not perfect (nor intended to be), it makes compulsive reading, and packs an intense emotional punch for all its no-frills, matter-of-fact style.

Browsing through Torodd’s numerous writings available on the Web, a picture emerges of a complex person, at the same time reserved and open about himself, possessed of an uncommon depth of feeling and empathy for his fellow humans. He is also provided of a keen sense of self-deprecating humour, and quite single-minded in his pursuits, be it music or bike rides. However, in the story narrated in The Final Ride music is never mentioned, and humour is conspicuously absent: indeed, the tale unfolds in sober, somber fashion until its deeply moving, albeit somewhat shocking end.

Written almost in diary form, the story takes place over a week, and is divided in seven chapters (one for each day), in turn divided into shorter sections, chronicling the first-person narrator’s journey to the places where he spent the first half of his life. From various hints scattered throughout the book, we learn that the narrator is a man in his sixties, and we cannot help but feel amazed at his stamina in facing a lengthy and physically demanding bicycle ride in a mountainous area. Very few names are mentioned, and the narrator’s country of origin is hinted at but never revealed explicitly, so that the reader is left to wonder which parts of the tale are fact, and which are fiction.

The realistic tone of the narration is threaded with a hauntingly lyrical vein of sadness and loss, often conveyed by natural imagery – like the yellow dandelions mentioned in the novel’s opening sentence. Lakes, rivers, mountains and fields do not merely provide a dramatic backdrop, but take on an almost human quality. Indeed, for a novel that has been compared to a road movie, the human presence is downplayed,  and the narrator’s interaction with the people he meets during his trip is kept to a minimum, so that it feels as if he is travelling alone in a country peopled by the ghosts of his past. As he is an expatriate, the people who have an important role everyday life (such as his long-time partner, Angela), though always present in his thoughts, are physically removed from the main stage of the tale, leaving him free to concentrate on his memories.

The narration seamlessly weaves the past and the present, with each scene from the present (the bike ride) conjuring a memory from the past. The transition is managed expertly, creating a sense of flow with its accomplished, almost stream-of-consciousness technique. There is also a lot of repetition, as if the narrator wanted to constantly remind the reader of his shortcomings and bad choices.The draft-like, somewhat unpolished nature of the text (complete with a few consistently misspelled words) adds to its peculiar charm, rather than making it look amateurish.

The Final Ride is not always comfortable reading, and the reader might occasionally be put off by the narrator’s negative perception of himself. However, the story is not all unrelenting misery, and – while his memories are clearly a source of pain for the narrator, and his estrangement from his former life is often harrowing to witness – there is also a sense of gratitude and appreciation of life that rescues the novel from being a complete gloom-fest. The feeling of self-loathing that pervades much of the narration is tempered by acceptance, and the simple comfort found in one’s hobbies and interests – not to mention the calming influence of a woman’s sincere love and support.

The story struck a chord with me on several levels, and will probably have the same effect on people who have gone through drastic changes in their life, and lost many of the cornerstones of their previous lives. The narrator’s bleak sense of loss following the death of his parents, sharply contrasted with his voluntary estrangement from his siblings and other surviving relatives, is likely to resonate keenly with many readers, as is his choice to leave his home country for good and rebuild a life elsewhere.

While it may look at first like a tale of defeat, the novel is ultimately about coming to terms with your choices, and making the most of what life throws at you. Indeed, the whole writing process must have been deeply cathartic for the author – like closing a door for the last time, and deciding to look ahead instead of looking back. In spite of its stark, potentially depressing subject matter, The Final Ride makes for an oddly uplifting read.

Links:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/torodd-fuglesteg/the-final-ride/ebook/product-20236299.html

http://www.toroddfuglesteg.com/

http://toroddfuglesteg.blogspot.com/

http://thesoundoffightingcats.blogspot.co.uk/

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