The Great Untranslated: Myrbråtenfortellingene by Thure Erik Lund

Let’s talk about Norwegian literature. No, we’re not going to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard; we’re going to quote him:

You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of.

It is a bit ironic that such an overhyped author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, should be the one to break the news to the English-speaking world about the existence of Thure Erik Lund, his complete opposite: obscure, untranslated into any other language, linguistically challenging (“untranslatable” says Knausgaard), not easily marketable. But we should be grateful for the successful author of My Struggle – now we at least know what we are missing.

Thure Erik Lund’s greatest achievement is the genrically heterogeneous tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene (The Myrbråten Tales) united by the presence of Thomas Olsen Myrbråten, the eponymous character. The first novel of the cycle is titled Grøftetildragelsesmysteriet (The Ditch Incident Mystery), and it relates the protagonist’s botched attempt to write a report on the protection of Norway’s cultural monuments commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Crushed by this failure and confronted with the existential void, Myrbråten first moves to the countryside and then retreats deep into the woods to lead there a solitary existence like some of  kind of postmodern Thoreau. There he embarks upon writing his own theory of the world. Admiring  Lund’s critique of contemporary culture, literary historian Øystein Rottem has written in  a review that it is so radical as to make Thomas Bernhard and Dag Solstad “pale” in comparison.

Compromateria, the second novel in the tetralogy, is the wildest. It is a science fiction allegory that stretches the limits of imagination and language alike, notorious among the Norwegian readership for its hundreds of neologisms. The main character of the novel is an unnamed writer who makes his own books, manufacturing the paper from random bits of junk: shreds of fabric, straw pieces, crushed stones.  At some point he is transported to the futuristic world of Compromateria in which technologies and language are fused together. In his detailed analysis of the novel (unfortunately available only in Norwegian), the critic Arve Kleiva neatly sums up what to expect of Lund’s extravaganza:

What else should I compare Lund with, in a nutshell? The references or rather the associations and formal similarities are so common that they dissolve into generalities: Homer’s adventures, Dante, Rabelais, Thomas More, Baroque travel allegories, Swift, Holberg and (a far stronger resemblance) Hieronymus Bosch, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Egil Rasmussen, the 20th century dystopia, surrealism, gonzo, sci-fi literature that the reviewer barely knows, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Matrix, Alien, X-Files, but perhaps just as much the revelation traditions,  [..] John’s Apocalypse, the Spanish Renaissance mystics and other visionary poetry. For it is the truth that speaks through this intricate and well-organised system of (alleged) lies and delirium.

The next book of Myrbråtenfortellingene bears the title Elvestengfolket (The Elvesteng Folk) and it features Thomas again as its protagonist. In this short novel we learn about Myrbråten’s earlier life, starting with his childhood in rural Norway in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, with his arrival in Oslo, on the eve of the great tribulations recounted in the first novel of the tetralogy.

With Uranophilia, the fourth novelLund brings his daring literary enterprise to an end. Thomas is now in his sixties and lives in Oslo again, still working on his philosophical system. His ordinary routine is changed when he meets the inventor Ludvig, who has built a time machine in his shabby workshop. Ludvig initiates his friend into his scientific research, and, after the inventor’s death, Thomas continues the experiments with time travelling. Another important part of the plot is the unravelling of the arcane knowledge concealed within a 16th-century treatise called Uranophilia. The investigation of its impact on the course of our civilisation is attended by a welter of historical and cultural references in which fact and fiction are elaborately intertwined. Especially fascinating are travellers’ accounts about visiting fantastic peoples that would make Pliny and Mandeville look like certified anthropologists.

Since the only piece of information in English about Thure Erik Lund’s tetralogy that I’ve been able to unearth is this short entry on the website of Eirin Hagen Literary Agency, I mostly had to rely on Google Translate and common sense when puzzling out the meaning of the Norwegian essays and reviews to form my own opinion. Based on all the secondary sources I thus perused, I would venture to assume that Thure Erik Lund’s cycle of novels fits that rare bill of a literary work whose linguistic complexity is matched by the complexity of its ideas and imagery. The lack of any translations makes Myrbråtenfortellingene especially tantalising, and I want to believe that despite the label of untranslatability, some brave adventurer will stand up to the challenge of widening the readership of this fascinating work.

Update: Matthias Friedrich’s German translation of The Ditch Incident Mystery is now forthcoming from Droschl as Das Grabenereignismysterium.

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11 Responses to The Great Untranslated: Myrbråtenfortellingene by Thure Erik Lund

  1. Reading you summaries of these untranslatable or simply untranslated works, i want to meet a djinn & use just one wish, which would be to know every language in the world so i could read all these books.

  2. Another option could be smuggling the Babel Fish from some distant corner of the galaxy…

  3. lookingforevropa says:

    Yes, you really are missing out. He is brilliant.

  4. INTET says:

    His latest novel, “Identitet” (2017) is translateable, I guess.

  5. wneal5796 says:

    Well, how about something uplifting, and happy, say? Can someone tell us that Torvald Enveloper is half way through with the English translation say? Because I don’t know as I’ll ever master another language to please my senses enough to read in any language but English. (And I’m tired of being sad and missing out.)

  6. gustavttt says:

    it appears that Matthias Dietrich is translating the first novel of the tetralogy to English. thankfully to me, as I am a brazilian and besides my native language, which is portuguese, I can only speak and read english, french and spanish.
    also, a recommendation: Grande Sertão: Veredas, by Guimarães Rosa, the wildest and most expansive writer from Brazil. if I’m not mistaken, Alison Entrekin – who translated City of God to the English language – is currently translating Rosa’s only novel. Berthold Zilly – who translated Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha, the last novel written by Machado de Assis and the short wild novel written by Raduan Nassar to the German language has also been working for some years in a “transgermanization” of the novel. hopefully you guys will get to know this master. his two only interviews in video are one from a german TV (he was a diplomat and a doctor, and helped many jews to escape from the Third Reich – he lived in Germany for many years) and one in Spanish, but I can’t remember from which country of Latin America the journalists were from.
    anyway, hope I can read Lund soon. great work here on the blog.

    • Thanks for all the updates and your appreciation! I can read Portuguese, but tackling Rosa’s novel will require the mobilisation I can’t muster at the moment. And since I know zero Norwegian, the forthcoming translation of the tetralogy is great news! Do visit from time to time as I hope to post something new at least once a month.

  7. I have translated The Ditch Incident Mystery into German, but I’m afraid the German publisher has cancelled the other three books of the tetralogy because it didn’t sell. But the first novel of the series is going to be published in English, by And Other Stories: You can look forward to it, it’s just WILD.

    • gustavttt says:

      thanks for the reply. when do you think the book will be released? how much time did it take to translate to german?

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