Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Read More Foreign Literature, Pretty Please! (Introducing Three Scandinavians and a Pole)

Americans don't read foreign literature.

Why should they? All good writers in the world write in English. If you write in any other language, it's probably because there's something wrong with you. You must be sick or suffer from a slight retardation.

I should know because my retardation is called Danish. I can't help it, I was born this way, so being an endangered species myself it would be nice with a little compassion ...

What, am I being facetious? Maybe, but unfortunately it's a fact that Americans aren't interested in foreign literature. Less than 1%of the novels that come out in the US are translations. And most of them are published by small university presses, selling about 400 copies each. Thus, the American market is the hardest in the world to break into. You need luck, a great book, and a courageous publisher who has fallen in love with say, Hungarian haiku or Peruvian poetry.

One of my own novels, The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in English in October, but let's forget about that for now (even though it's hard) and concentrate on four truly great writers from my neck of the woods - four books you simply have to read:

Three of the writers are Scandinavian and one is Polish. None of their books have broken any sales records in English. However, reading them will make you a better person. These books are original; they will entertain you and force you to think, and they'll show you that there actually is life outside the English speaking world, how strange that may seem to any Republican.

Here we go:

1. Tales of Protection by Erik Fosnes Hansen (Norway). One of the best books I ever read. A masterpiece of storytelling that mixes four stories from four different time periods: contemporary Norway, 19th century Sweden, 15th century Italy, and 20th century Africa. A novel about chance, coincidences, and how we humans are connected in the strangest ways.

This novel can be understood on many levels. Is its approach to life scientific, philosophical or religious? Fosnes Hansen's masterly novel is an interesting meditation on the word protection, whether its divine intervention, or ordinary people who support and help each other for no apparent reason.

No matter what your perspective is, Tales of Protection is an allegorical romp through the ages and is beautifully translated by Nadia Christensen. Read it, buy it, swallow it. I'm envious of those who haven't read it yet. They're in for a treat.

2. Prince by Ib Michael. (Denmark) Danish magical realism, any one? That sounds oddly contradictory, doesn't it? Ib Michael's novel takes place on a beach in Denmark in 1911. It's a lyrical, mysterious coming-of-age novel full of ghosts and ancient mariners that will blow you away if you're a lover of poetic language and writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Denmark has never been more exotic than in this dreamy tale that will speak to the child and the poet in you. And hey, the sun shines every day on this Danish beach. Magical realism indeed.

Prince sold 14.000 copies in the US, a decent amount for an "unknown" Scandinavian writer. However, this wasn't enough for the big bad publisher in New York, so they haven't picked up more titles by this great Danish writer. A crying shame!

Barbara Haveland is the translator of Prince and she has done an excellent job capturing Ib Michael's lyrical style. Great translations are hard to come by, but this is definitely one of them.

3.Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi (Sweden). Hey, all Scandinavians know that Swedes aren't funny. Just ask any Norwegian or Dane about that. The Swedes are overly serious, overly disciplined, and overly organized to the point of being anal - they're the Germans of Scandinavia. But why is it that they fail to live up to our ugly prejudices? Actually, Swedes make funny films, Swedes even write funny books, and this is definitely one of the very best.

Popular Music from Vittula is a hilarious coming-of-age story that takes place in Northern Sweden among the Finnish minority. But the beauty of this book is that it isn't "just" funny. It's incredibly well written, the language is beautiful, and the novel keeps on taking you by surprise, mixing reality with dreams and the weird imagination of an adolescent.

Matti is a young kid who discovers Beatles, homosexuality, girls, and loss. And the reader is in for a funny ride in this book of sunny snapshots of religious fanaticism, sulky Finns, witches in the forest, and black Volvos.

Popular Music is the most sold novel in Sweden ever. It gave a voice to a minority in an isolated part of Sweden that was exotic to the Swedes themselves. And hey, if you ever had a dream of becoming a rock star - I take that back: If you ever were fifteen years old, felt out of place and struggled with puberty, this is the book for you.

4. House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland).
The word masterpiece is overly used, but this book is a damn masterpiece. It's a post modern novel full of amazing stories that are poetic, funny, strange, and stay with you for years. Olga Tokarczuk's book is not really a novel; it sure as hell isn't a collection of short stories, either. So what is it? I have no idea, I just enjoy the hell out of it.

What I can say is that House of Day, House of Night doesn't have a traditional plot but is the collected history of Silesia, a region in Southern Poland where everything and everybody, from mushrooms to tourists, have a story that demands to be told.

I bet you'll never forget House of Day, House of Night . You only go wrong with this book if you demand a traditional plot and characters with traditional arcs. In Tokarczuk's world, characters show up and disappear into thin air. Some are drunks, others are lovers, astrologers or collectors of dreams. Silesia itself, however, is the main protagonist. It sits on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany - very symbolic indeed because this novel sits on the border between reality and dreams, between myth and the collective unconscious.

Needless to say, House of Day, House of Night hasn't sold well in the US, but it won the Günther Grass prize in Europe and Olga Tokarczuk is a big name in her native Poland.

That's it: Three Scandinavians and a Pole for you to savour. Obviously, a lot of great books are written in foreign languages. Most of them you'll never hear about. They die a slow and painful death in their own languages. They fade away like ghosts on their dark and sinister continents while the world choke on Dan Brown and John Grisham.

But perhaps there is a ray of hope.

In Great Britain, about 2% of the published books are translated from a foreign language. Compared to the rest of Europe, it's an appalling low number, but it's still four times better than good, old USA.

Embrace the world, you wonderful Yanks.

Buy a foreign novel today. It might become the best friend you ever had ...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Denmark for Dummies: A Superficial Introduction to the Happiest Country in the World.

You may want to go to the updated version Denmark for Dummies 2017 This post is from 2008.

All Danes are blond and gorgeous. And all of us have a cabin with a view of a lake. No wonder the whole world wants to be Danish, but don't get your hopes up. We're very protective of our gene pool.

You're smart.

You're planning to go to Denmark.

You've always wanted to visit our country because you know that it's the most exciting nation in the world. You tell yourself, "Why would I want to go to Paris, Rome or Barcelona when I can go hiking in Djursland?"

"Yes," you continue, "I'm trendy. I want to go to Denmark because the Danes are green, they ride their bikes like there's no tomorrow, they're innovative with windmills and herring, and most important, they're the happiest people in the world."

Yes, that's right.

What we Danes have known for ages is now official: Denmark has been named the happiest nation on the planet. And I'm living proof of that. Right now this Danish novelist is sitting in the middle of happy Copenhagen staring at the happy rain, enjoying the 53 degrees of happy summer.

Come and visit us, will you?

And please bring all your money because you're going to need it!


Here's a superficial introduction to my Southern Scandinavian Paradise. Everything you read here is the gospel truth and is not open for discussion:

Name: Denmark (Danmark)

Inhabitants: 5,5 million.

Capital: Copenhagen (1.5 million)

Ranking: Most livable city in the world (Monocle, British Magazine, 2008)

Other Top Rankings in the World That We Take Pride in Because We Should:
a) Commitment to foreign aid.
b) Pork consumption per capita.

Language: Danish.

Government: Constitutional monarchy.

Currency: Kroner. (5.5 DKK to a US dollar)

Religion: No, thank you.

Name of King: We don't have any.

Name of Queen: Margrethe II.

Name of Prime Minister: Always a Rasmussen.

Size: The 8th biggest country in the world if you count Greenland. (Always count Greenland).

Unemployment Rate: Always rising

Crime per Capita: Fourth lowest in the world.

Corruption: Second lowest in the world.

Average Consumption of Beer per Capita: Fourth highest in the world.

Great Danes Who Throw Up When They See George Bush on TV: 94, 3%

Great Danes Who Get an Erection When They See Obama: 53%

Big Boys Club: The European Union, NATO.

Famous Dead Danes: Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale writer), Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher), King Canute (conquered England), Tycho Brahe (astronomer), Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen (writer), Vitus Bering (explorer), Niels Bohr (physicist, Nobel prize winner), Jørn Utzon (architect), Carl Nielsen (composer), Hamlet (Shakespeare's boy toy).

Famous Living Danes: Lars Ulrich (founder of Metallica), Michael Laudrup (soccer), Helena Christensen (model), Peter Schmeichel (soccer), Lars von Trier (film director), Connie Nielsen (actress).

Danes Who Ought to Be Dead: Jante.

Famous Half Danes: Viggo Mortensen, Scarlett Johansson.

Danish Oscar Winners for Best Foreign Film: Gabriel Axel (Babette's Feast, 1987), Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, 1988).
Biggest Danish Film Star of All Time: Asta Nielsen (from the Silent Age. Known as Die Asta by Germans, and other riff-raff)

Most Famous Danish Building: The Opera House in Sydney.

Famous Danish Companies You Probably Would Want to Boycot If You Were a Muslim: Arla, Lego, Maersk, Ecco, Bang and Olufsen, Danfoss, Carlsberg, Tuborg.

Daily Smokers: 10% of population. (All of them will be sitting in your outdoor café of choice)

Obesity Rate: 22% of population.

McDonalds Restaurants in Denmark: 25

Best Danish Food: Herring, herring (and hey, the herring is pretty good, too)

Denmark's Claim to Fame in Great Britain: Bacon.

Denmark's Claim to Fame in Spain, Greece, and Cyprus: Blond girls with herpes.

Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Far East: Badminton.

Most Important Danish Invention of All Time: The atomic bomb (Niels Bohr).

Denmark's Biggest Contribution to American Sports: Morten Andersen, the all-time leading scorer in the NFL.

Best Tourist Attraction If You're Into Knights in Shining Armour: 1. Frederiksborg castle, Hillerød. 2. Kronborg (Hamlet's castle), Elsinore. 3. Egeskov, Funen.

Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eight Years Old or Behaving Like It: Legoland.

Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eighty Years Old or Behaving Like It: Tivoli.

Most Overrated Tourist Attraction That You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With But God Knows You Will: The Little Mermaid.

Time of Glory I: When the Danish vikings conquered England in the 11th century.

Time Of Glory II: When Denmark won the European Championship in soccer in 1992 and the whole country behaved like we'd won the Third World War.

This is the kind of abuse we Danes have to tolerate every day: Foreigners who fondle our national treasure as if she were a common strumpet. Shameless, that's what it is.

Biggest International Danish Hit of All Time But Please Don't Listen to It: Barbie Girl by Aqua.

Most Sold Novel Since the Days of Hans Christian Andersen: Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg.

Worst Danish Accent by Great Actress: Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.

Most Beautiful Cities in Denmark: Copenhagen, Helsingør (Elsinore), Ærøskøbing, Faaborg, Ribe, Skagen, Svaneke, Århus.

Places to Avoid at All Costs:Strøget after midnight.

Best Months to Visit: June, August.

Best Month to Commit Suicide Because It's Dark, Dreary, and Everybody Wish They Were in Thailand: January.

Best Danish Traits: Tolerance, sense of humor, informality.

Worst Danish Traits: Intolerance, rudeness, pettiness, self-satisfied melancholy.

What You'll Miss the Most If You're an American Visiting Denmark: TV anchors with perfect teeth.

What You'll Miss the Most If You're Italian: Bread and Berlusconi.

What You'll Miss the Most If You're Norwegian: Norway

Most Beautiful Area of Denmark: The Silkeborg lake district in Jutland.

Celebrities Who Adore Copenhagen Because We Force Them to: Danny Kaye, Woody Allen, Bryan Adams, Per-Olov Enquist, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cleese.

Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Now, which part of Germany are you from again ...?

Second Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: I've just been to Sweden. It's my favorite Scandinavian country.

Enjoy your stay, but do bring all your credit cards.
Copenhagen is the third most expensive capital in the world, but hey, we mean well.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

My Addiction to Facebook. (Will Somebody Help Me, Please?)

My role model was Francis of Assisi until that faithful day in May ...

I'm addicted.

It's not something I'm proud of. On the contrary, I'm ashamed of myself. You have to understand that I'm a deeply spiritual person. I pray to God every day, I meditate on Francis of Assisi, and most important, I'm a student of Eckhart Tolle - this German friend of Oprah's who has invented the now. But I'm still addicted, there's no way around it.

It all started May 31. My girlfriend introduced me to Facebook. I'd heard of it several times before, of course. Through the last couple of years, many people had told me, "why don't you go on Facebook, Peter? You can tell people about your books and you can introduce your blogs ... actually, you can make a total fool of yourself in front of millions of people instead of those eleven who show up for your readings."

I listened to my friends. I felt the great love they had for me and I decided to go for it. So May 31 I started my new life on Facebook. My girlfriend introduced it to me. She's a darling, she knows I'm technically challenged, so she explained the basics like she was talking to a retard. We set up my profile and I picked a picture from my collection of five thousand portraits.

"Do you have to look so fuckable?" she asked when I chose one from last year where I'm laughing like a madman.

"I can't help it, baby," I sighed, "but at my age, it's important to be attractive. In a few years, I might not have a body."

My pale beauty started to cry and I promised her I wouldn't let any woman be my Facebook friend unless she was incredibly repulsive.

"Thank you," she said and kissed me on the cheek.

Before my addiction ....

After ...

Then I went to work. I filled out all kinds of information about myself: how I love Crowded House and mountain lakes; how my favorite films are E.T. and Deep Throat. But the first thing I saw was a sentence in my profile that took my breath away - a sentence of such unbelievably cruelty that I sank into a deep depression. It said: Peter has no friends.

"But baby, how does Facebook know that? How come Facebook is aware that I don't have a true friend in the world and never will?"

My girlfriend explained to me that I shouldn't take it personally. It simply meant that at this point I didn't have any, but I would get many later when I found old class mates and shady loan sharks in the listings.

"About thirty million are on Facebook", she explained, "so there's an outside chance you know one or two".

Boy, was she right. Ever since that day my life has changed.

I've gotten in contact with lost aquaintances from the nineties, with old lovers from the eighties, and with coke heads from the seventies. Strangers in Brazil want to be my friend, women in Tuscalusa are lusting after my body - I'm online 24 hours a day. Actually, I've refused to leave my computer since May 31, I haven't eaten a single time; my new friends won't allow it.

"I hate what Facebook has done to you," my girlfriend cried and lashed out at me with a broom stick.

She left me yesterday because I'm only able to relate to her online. I find it very confusing when people have a body, I just want them to have a profile.

Very soon I'm going to be on Messenger as well. And on MySpace. I'm maintaining two blogs, Danish Accent in English and Forfatteren Peter H. Fogtdal in Danish. Right now a friend in France wants to make a website for my French books and has asked me for material. With a bit of luck I'll never have to write a novel again. Who needs it, it's hard work. This is so much more fun!

And in the future I won't need anything as gross as a real girlfriend. I can just stay online, the safest and most wonderful place on earth ...

Even my gorgeous niece Thyra in Denmark has told me I blew it ...