Smilla’s Sense of Snow

I finally read Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I had seen the film and had felt no particular urge to read the novel it is based on.

The novel is credited to have started the Scandinavian hurricane in literary thriller genre.

Smilla Jaspersen is half Innuit- Half Danish genius scientist. Issaih, a young Greenlander boy she is extremely close to- son of her alcoholic neighbour, dies after a fall from the terrace. Cops think that he fell while playing. But Smilla knows of his fear for heights. She is also one of the premier Glaciologists in the world and knows snow like no other. She reads the snow on the terrace and realizes that Issaih was murdered. She sets on investigating the cause. She discovers a gigantic corporate scheme which is hiding a secret that could very well be the biggest scientific discovery of 20th century.

The novel began as a classic Scandinavian thriller. An intelligent and socially inept female protagonist. Precise and cold prose. Unusual characters. Distrust of authority and government. Hypnotic atmosphere and landscape.

And then it dissolved into pretentious prose very unlike Scandinavians and more like Indian writers writing in English – long words and flowery metaphors drowning any possibility of genuine storytelling.

Unbelievable twists that want you to applaud for the sheer scientific cleverness of it all, but are actually so cliched that you want to warn the evil scientist to look for a man with a gun rather than strutting through hundreds of pages of meticulous nobel prizeworthy scientific villainy.

An increasingly annoying narrator/ protagonist. Smilla begins to grate on us halfway through and then on she is simply too snobbish and unsympathetic a character to carry the book on her shoulders. Her holier than thou attitude, her lapses in the holy aboriginal mysticism, her overtly pretentious theories of life make her a preacher rather that someone who is looking to transcend, to belong, to learn- all these things she whines about.

Critique of western culture bordering on paranoia. The most annoying this was the ‘noble savage’ treatment of the aboriginal Innuit culture. Mystical, wise, gentle, serene, soulful and completely stereotypical. Classic misguided westerners who think all aboriginal cultures somehow represent a heavenly purity that will somehow wash away their grievances with western colonialism. It is one thing to critique the colonial culture and one thing to elevate the colonised side to extreme otherness bordering on glorified patronizing and homogenizing.

I have noticed that unlike the ‘smiling negro’ stereotype of warmer colonies, Arctic colonies are full of ‘ brooding warrior saints’ cliché. Be it Asa Larsson or Henning Mankell or Agnette Friss- every northerner feels it his/ her duty to eulogize Innuit culture and quell their collective conscience.

I am not sure if I would ever re-read it again.

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Bridge ( Bron/ Broen) season 2..

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

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Bridge 2. Or Bron/ Broen 2 as it is called in original Danish/ Swedish. Speechlessly great, astounding tv. You know why you should watch this show even if you don’t watch anything else ( other than the equally brilliant first season)?

Outstanding Female characters.
So so non-cliched. It is a pleasure to see shows where women are shown as people. From heroic to bad ass villains to ordinary people caught in life’s complexities. The sheer range of women characters in Bridge- from cops to activists to lovers to tycoons to bitter troublemakers is huge. And there are no thin, young, suspiciously smooth-faced actors there. These women look and feel real and purposeful. Their individuality, intelligence, sexuality is so human, that watching something like Bridge painfully makes you aware of the sexism in virtually every other show.

Saga Noren.
The emotionally distant and inhumanly brilliant Saga gets a painful back story in this season, but the writers do not try to lazily explain Saga away. Saga epitomizes everything about the show. The morality, value system, detached honesty, cool rationality and a sweetly dark humour that makes you happy to be imperfect. The sheer range of this character makes me speechless. She is Lisbeth Salander’s nemesis – with a law rulebook in her hand. Saga tries hard to follow social norms in this season, mostly with hilarious outcome. She is trying hard to be in a relationship too and has memorised all the popular wisdom about modern relationships. Her desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to be part of the normal society actually end up exposing the inherent hypocrisy of the world. Saga, ultimately, is so pure and adorable that you want to protect her from humanity. Not that she would let anyone do that.

Martin.
The intensely huggable and possessing merriest sparkly eyes with the best smile on TV papa bear, Martin is battling his demons from season 1. He is self-destructive in such a relatable way that you want to extend your hand towards the screen and stop him from treading the path that you know will harm him and his dear ones. Saga is perhaps the only one he relates to and is genuinely fond of without any complications. Martin is like you and me- weak, vulnerable, susceptible to temptations but ultimately a nice guy who desperately wants to do the right things.

Partnership.
Saga and Martin is one of the best detective partners in recent times. They are poles apart but are bound by their obsession with work and mutual respect/ affection for each other. Their friendship is priceless for both of them and is the only steady anchor in their rocky lives. In this season also Saga saves Martin’s family. Martin continues mentoring Saga in social niceties and being protective about her, albeit to disastrous results. When these two characters come together in one frame, it crackles with chemistry and camaraderie. Non romantic partnership between an eccentric woman and a more conventional and caring man seems to be the latest Scandinavian gender-bending formula, see Girl with Dragon Tattoo Series, The Killing. Saga and Martin seem like a classic detective pair- a cool, uber-rational, slightly superhuman genius ( Sherlock Holmes) is paired with a warm, genial partner ( a pumped up version of Watson) and the two form lasting friendship. But life is more complex than simple formulas and The Bridge shows us just how so. Towards the end of the show my stomach was twisted in knots with fear that our beloved pair might break off their friendship. The climax, was not unexpected but gut-wrenching nonetheless.

Lack of clichés:
Anything clichéd is going to be demolished in this show. If you, like I, try to be smart and predict the outcome- you will fall flat on your face. Because Bridge 2 is on a mission to give you characters, motives, clues and turn of events that twist the genre and your norms till they are unrecognisable. Seriously. Anything can happen in this show. So make sure not to form too many attachments and cling to any Sherlockian theories here- you will be deeply humiliated.

Emotional pitch:

I was watching the last episodes literally with bated breath, i.e., when you hold your breath for too long and your throat and jaw aches from too much emotion. The show peels away the characters and lays them bare. There is cruelty and honesty in the way we see the battle of conflicting emotions. Every lined face, every leafless tree, the dreary weather, race against time, disappointments, surprises crackle with muted tension. If it was not for Saga’s ‘I want to be normal’ humour, the show would have been unbearable in its sheer intensity.

Storytelling:

Even with a slightly sloppy and disappointing final answer to the mystery , the overall unrevealing of the suspense of the show is pitch-perfect, edge-of-the-seat. Which is not surprising knowing it is the Bridge we are talking about. There is very little one can talk without spoilers, so let me just say that your nerves will be fried in delicious anticipation when you watch the show.

Acting:

See it. Can’t be lauded enough. Can’t be reviewed. Just see it. Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia are gods. And while Saga is a more challenging character, I think Bodnia’s Martin is my most favourite performance in the show.

Humanity:

Finally, the real success of the show is the deep, very relatable and very very moving humanity that envelops every character, every event, every motive. Be it extreme ideologies or misguided people or dysfunctional relationships- this show champions the imperfect humanity in all of us in a manner that is brutal and still filled with love. Does this make sense? After watching Bridge, I am unable to watch anything else because it just feels so fake and shallow and wannabe.

In nutshell, see the show. And be happy that such TV is being made and we are being able to watch it.

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

The Killing (Forbydelsen) Season 3

I managed to finish the season 3 of Forbydelsen a.k.a The Killing.

The show blazed the trail for worldwide popularity of Danish thriller shows. Along with Borgen and Bridge, this show helped cement the Danes’ reputation as master thriller makers. It also introduced us the character Sarah Lund, who rewrote the rules for female detectives onscreen. Just like Lisbeth Salander did it for angels of vengeance .

In season 3, Sarah is ready to take on more desk jobs and is about to become a grandmother. But do we want Sarah Lund the administrator? Of course not. She gets caught in a web of murders, political cover-ups and revenge crime as she hunts for the kidnapper of a daughter of a financial tycoon. The kidnapping case uncovers an older crime- an orphan girl’s brutal murder and rape. An election is under way and various political personalities benefit from the murder being kept under the wraps. What will Sarah do to bring the victim to justice when her own life is at stake?

It is a typical Scandinavian formula, popularised by Girl With Dragon Tattoo and Wallander series, amongst others. Society and institutions fail innocent people. Moral obligations and accountability are put in conflict with personal gain. Can justice for an individual be sacrificed for larger goals? How can social institutions protect the vulnerable without compromising the stability of society at large? What is the role of an individual when she is called for action in this situation?

The story telling is complex and taut. The characters are compelling. The production values are excellent.

But even then this season fails to bring that sense of climax to Sarah’s epic story and answer the questions raised about society in general.

Her character is lacklustre compared to earlier seasons. The whole fun about Sarah was her headstrong and rebellious stoicism. In this season, she lacks the punch until the very last 15 minutes of the show- when we get our beloved reckless and stubborn Sarah in full form. It is great to see a grandmother kicking ass and shooting the villains and threatening prime-minsiters though . And Sofie Grabol does an excellent job as usual.

The romantic track between Sarah and Borsch is dull. So is her relationship with her family.

The clues to the mystery are clichéd and certain scenarios seem too far-fetched. The tendency to doubt every single character was good in Agatha Christie’s time, but in 2013 it just seems naive.

The appeal of the first season was also the story arc of the victim’s family. For the first time a thriller focused as much on those who lose someone as those who are hunting the killer. In this season, the family of both the kidnapped girl and the murdered girl don’t appeal to emotions. I am tired of hysterical martyr characters of mothers in stories where a child is a victim. Why can’t we have mothers who in control of the situation and express their grief in less melodramatic manner? It is a lazy shortcut to appeal to viewers’ sympathy.

We the fans looked forward to the grand finale to the grandmother of modern crime with high expectations. Maybe it is the too high expectations that disappointed me. As a stand-alone, it is still a great season, way above its English language counterparts.

Borgen Season 3

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I managed to finish Borgen Season 3. It is not only better than season 1 and season 2 ( which were outstanding) it is simply the best TV I have seen in ages.

Birgitte has quit active politics after two successful terms as prime-minister. She is in private industry now and travels across the globe for work. A particularly alarming law being passed in Denmark forces her back in politics. What follows is a heady cocktail of political shenanigans, ideological conflicts, moral dilemmas, new loves, health scares and following your ideals while still winning the game.

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Nyborg is simple the best character I have seen on TV in many many years. Heroic, inspirational, grounded in reality and morally complex. Sidse Knudsen’s performance is so nuanced and dazzling that she is my most favourite actor right now.

This season in particular is epitome of what the world loves about Scandinavian shows and fiction. A pitch perfect story telling flawlessly combining moral positioning, gravitas, unpredictability, broken stereotypes, pacy storytelling, identifiable situations, array of realistic characters put in difficult situations and a whole lot of edge-of-seat twists.

As a feminist- what a huuuuuggggee relief to see no cookie-cutter stereotypical female characters. Women are shown to be normal human beings- phew!! Neither their motherhood or loverhood overshadows the key focus of the show- What constitutes a great leader in today’s complex world.

I also loved the secondary track of life in Newsroom. Again- morally complex and a step ahead of http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/ hangover that every show about news media suffers from.

More well-known political shows like House of Cards or Newsroom don’t hold a candle to this masterpiece.

I am simply spellbound. I want to shift to Scandinavia like right now.

Sequels, Season 2s, Marathons

Christopher Nolan has surely been a trendsetter for long faces spouting deeeeeep dialogues uttered by self-important characters looking away from camera, all the while hiding the terribly silly shallowness of the entire premise of the story. I propose Nolan ‘reinterprets’ Tom and Jerry. Make Tom repent his horrible bullying ways, which turns him into vegetarian, and gives his clinical depression. The question Nolan/ this movie asks is, what is Jerry running from? Which internal conflict makes his steal the cheese and does he suffer any pangs of conscience? Is Jerry existential confused? The 220 minute movie spends a large amount of time in Lhasa where both Tom and Jerry battle the issues of mortality, violence and essential nature of cat-rat conflict in modern society.

Yes, I am so so over the overratedness of overrated thingies..

I was reminded of long-face-aesthetic when I finally saw Death Comes to Pemberley, which is sort of reimagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice, penned by P.D.James. And now made into a mini-series.

Dull as Mr. Collins’ sermons. Dull. Dull. Dull.

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I know there were extremely large shoes to fill here, but Darcy and Elizabeth couldn’t have been more boring and lacklustre.

None of the vitality, the simmering sensuality, the wit, the biting critique of social manners that we love P & P for.

Instead we have faux-serious long faces whispering inspirational tidbits to each other set on boring violin score and a good bit of post modern marriage counselling thrown in.

The mystery is laughably silly. Direction is weak. Editing loose to say the least. Cinematography is the only saving grace.

I am seeing this faux-americanized-gravity in the guise of ‘reinterpretation’ becoming a mainstream trend now. There are two reasons for this and the similar malaise.

1. Christopher Nolan with his overrated, laughably serious and trying-too-hard-to-find-meaning-of-life-while dressed-in-a-bat cape style of cinema. Seriously, he is going to overtake Tarantino very soon for ‘the most overrated by wannabe film buffs’ status.
2. Scandinavians with their naturally morose and gritty style. Maybe it is all that snow and bad food, but nordics sure have a monopoly over long faces. And they do it with aplomb, unlike their pale imitations in the Anglo world.

There. I wish the English leave the style slick productions with shallow gravitas to Nolan and company, and get back to telling good stories with great acting, fantastic scripts and genuine honesty.

And talking of Scandinavians, I finally saw Borgen Season 2.
borgen
It is better than season 1. Really, what is it about Scandies? They seem to mix naive formula, morality and depth in such a delicious treat.

A political saga with Denmark’s first female prime minister as the protagonist is about ethical conflicts and moral choices one makes.

The only peeve I had was that as usual, when there is a powerful female character in power, the makers have to drag the precious ‘work-family’ balance in. What is the prime-minister’s husband doing when the daughter gets ill? There was a suggestion that only mother can help the ailing child, even if it means risk of political suicide, which I found ridiculous for such a progressive show and such a dynamic character.

And I tried watching Girls season 2, hoping I might have not liked Season 1 for some vague reason like common cold or inertia or something. But honestly, this show has not struck a single cord with me. Not one. Nada. So I am not going to try any more.

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My latest crush BTW is on Matthew Goode – the only saving grace in his rather small role in Death Comes to Pemberly. The delicious, slurpicious Matthew Goode, who now monopolises the ‘not blinking his beautiful and rather large green eyes EVER’ to a rather sexy effect. I suspect he hides his mediocrity behind the stock ‘look at my hauntingly stunning face that is hiding something’ expression. But it worked for me in Stoker and it works here. There are not enough beautiful men with large green eyes around and I am going to nurse a serious crush on this piece of Goode. Horrible pun, I know!

And since no post featuring P & P can be complete without the scintillating Colin Firth, here is him being smooched by Matthew Goode. Twooo much….

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Fresh from Little Poland…

A kick ass female detective. An array of interesting characters and cultural references from non-English-speaking background. A strong sense of morality. A great protagonist. Clean, non-chunky prose. A few dead bodies. Dramatic international intrigue.

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Anya Lipska’s series with investigative pair DI Natalie Kershaw and jack of all trades Jansuz Kiszka is redolent with all the above, making the series an addictive , if somewhat old-fashioned entry in the ‘international crime’ genre. Where the Devil Can’t Go was released last year to favourable reviews( ‘RIP Scandinavians, the Poles are here’, says one copy) and Death Can’t Take a Joke is releasing end of this month. I got the review copy from NegGalley and devoured it in a day.

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Each novel starts with a heinous crime ( of course) and our unlikely and hugely likeable pair’s paths cross and eventually merge. As they run in with Ukrainian gangsters, Polish politicians, desperate sex-workers, illegal activities and colourful immigrants, old scandals pop up, threatening to explode. Kershaw and Kiszka must save the innocent, stop the villains and not get killed themselves in process. Simple!!

Kershaw is ambitious, arrogant, and cockney ( yes, cockney, not cocky). She is trying to fit in with the ‘boys’ and struggling with her love life. She is sharp and ends up as a saviour, as kick ass heroines are bound to do in these kind of books ( love them!!). As a female detective character, she is ok, not outstanding, but comfortably entertaining.

The most sparkling character is Kiszka- a brooding, good-looking, intellectual Robin Hood. He dabbles in illegal activities and loves to read New Science and Economist and wax poetic about music. A student of physics two decades ago, when he joined the anti-communist movement in his native Gdansk, and escaped to London after a tragedy, he now lives a fairly dangerous life as ‘jack-of-all-trades’ investigator. He is a bit Humphrey Bogart mixed with young angry Amitabh Bachchan mixed with Harry Hole. He loves to cook, has almost naive, old-fashioned beliefs and is ready to jump in to protect his countrymen, and women.

Although the series is largely set in London, the stories are rooted in the background of Polish immigrants. The colourful curse words, descriptions of places in Poland, lively interaction between the immigrants and mouth-watering polish food devoured by the characters as they wax nostalgic about their motherland makes the series pulse with a very distinctive diasporic environment. The situation of Eastern Europe in general and Poland is particular plays a major catalyst in each novel, and one can get a fair amount of idea about post-Soviet Poland from the novels.
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Anya Lipska excels in the fast pace, superb characterisation, good story-telling and interesting twists ( bit unbelievable ones, but hell, that is the fun!!).What I really liked was the light, slightly old-fashioned d narrative. The characters, both Polish and English are entertaining, if somewhat clichéd. Grumpy police chief, jovial best friend, golden hearted prostitutes, oily politicians…you get the drift. The clichés occasionally reminded me of a Hindi movie, but in an endearing and enjoyable way.

I find your typical diasporic fiction extremely annoying. The italicised local words, the nostalgia, ornamental prose, playing up the cultural stereotypes- all these hallmarks of disaporic lit. seriously piss me off. I did my thesis on Diasporic Cinema and by the end of it, I was convinced that the mainstream Indian diaspora is perhaps the most irritating, conservative and boring group of all. Diaspora was a big , overrated fad in academics and fiction 10-12 years ago, and thank god that it has passed.

I was annoyed that Lipska plays with the clichés of post-iron-curtain Eastern European immigrants for dramatic effect. I mean why is every girl coming out of that part of the world a stripper or a prostitute? Even girls who have studied film-making and economics? Why does every young immigrant man dabble in drugs and smuggling and is flashy? I am not denying that these characters don’t exist, but it is sad that Anya Lipska indulges in stereotyping so frequently.

This series has ignited my interest in Polish crime fiction and I definitely want to read novels originating from Poland. The homegrown fiction is almost always superior to the diasporic one. I hope this series encourages more translations from native Polish.

The Exception

The Exception by Christian Jungersen

The Exception by Christian Jungersen

Christian Jungersen’s ‘The Exception’ is a kind of book I have never read before. Ever.

Iben, Malene, Camilla, Anne-Lise and Paul run the Danish Center for Genocide News, an organisation committed to studying and preventing Genocide. Anne-Lise doesn’t fit in from the beginning, and is slowly and subtly targeted by the dashing and young best friends Iben & Malene. Camilla has a secretive life and sides with the two to escape being ostracised. Anne-Lise starts loosing her mind. When the staff starts receiving death threats, presumably from a war criminal, the group dynamics spirals into a vortex that culminates into the same violence that the characters study professionally.

As the story progresses, it is clear that these highly educated and morally conscious social psychologists, who professionally excel in understanding complex group dynamics, segregation, discrimination, social aggression, and victim-blaming that occurs in every major genocide, can not grasp the ramifications of their own behaviour. Even when they do, they can not control it.

It is a strange paradox that so much of what we all understand intellectually and objectively about external situations, fails to touch us in personal life.

Throughout the novel, scholarly articles about the social psychology of genocidal violence are interspersed with the minutiae of the staff’s lives. An eerie sense of for boding prevails throughout the book. One of the great things about the book are these chapters that delve in-depth of psychological study about racist groups violently and systematically targeting and eliminating minorities in countries like Germany, Serbia,Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Bangladesh. ( I was thinking about Godhra all the while). We gradually learn parallels between the situation in the small office and the historical tragedies: Why do seemingly normal groups perpetrate violence when they don’t have to, how a victim, once broken, starts blaming herself, how indirect references act as potent poison to malign. And after couple of chapters, as the intensity of the genocidal studies continues plumbing uncomfortable depths of the hidden monsters in everyone, we know that this group of intellectual Danish humanists are going to repeat the same mistakes they professionally warn against.

You must read this yourself. It is one of those notoriously difficult books to review, without giving away all the delicious darkness it slowly uncovers.

It is entertaining, eerie and truly outstanding. More than anything, it is as genre defying, as individualistic and as unique a book as you can find.

My biggest issue with the book is the almost exclusive feminine setting. While I love dark female characters to pits, in this book, the larger context of passive-aggressive bullying as well as hyper-sensitive psychological degradation could be labeled as a typical feminine , competitive violence. I wish the author had taken a more mixed group to avoid getting in an intellectual cat-fight kinda situations.

I also found a few reactions a bit exaggerated. Sometimes the novels plunges into almost surreal feelings and incidents, which could be intentional, but to me it seemed little put offish.

If you like dark literary fiction that makes you squirm and makes you question your own uncomfortable impulses, go for this.

I read such books and all my resolve to step out of my Scandinavian comfort zone vanishes. Why bother when an entire region produces mind-blowing fiction that will last me a life-time, even if I don’t indulge in repeat-reading?

Nephilim by Asa Schwarz

Nephilim by Asa Schwarz

And while we are on the Scandies, I also recommend Asa Schwarz’s Nephilim. A story of Nova, who is a Greenpeace volunteer and an eco-warrior, the novel mixes the biblical legend of Nephilims with a very current issue of climate change. It is a perfect genre hot-pot of doomsday- eco-disaster, murder-mystery, fantasy, and police-procedural. I loved all three major, powerful female characters. I loved the mingling of past with present. I loved the unabashed theme of human beings being a second-rate nuisance to the world. If you feel like killing people who act and talk about ‘development’ at the cost of everything non-human- you will like it. It is not great, but has a sweet sincerity which I found cathartic.

The next book I am going to download is American, and I am already dreading the geographical transition… choosy armchair bigass potato I have become!!