Wednesday, December 23, 2009


All sorts of stories were circulating about him in town.
- Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, p. 302

I was introduced to the author Knut Hamsun by reading his first novel, Hunger. It is a Dostoevskian tale of a young journalist who is literally starving to death. His story is about trying to write and live while not even being able to afford a scrap of food, pawning his vest to be able to survive a few more days. It is a searing story that one does not forget. I had reread that book about a year ago, but still had not tackled any of Hamsun's other works before I had picked this book. My expectations were high, as he is a Nobel Laureate, but I was not sure if he would equal, much less surpass, his earlier novel. Now I look forward to reading more of his works.

I was drawn to Mysteries because of a reference in Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi where he said of Mysteries that it "is closer to me than any other book I have read." High praise from a writer that I respect and whose Colossus I loved.

Mysteries is not exactly thrilling, but it is an adventure into the unknown. It does not rely on a traditional plot, rather it starts under mysterious circumstances where a strange young man named Johan Nagel without any past appears in a small coastal town where a person has been recently killed. However, playing against expectations the book doesn't delve in to the suspense of the murder, rather all the mysteries lie in Nagel's relations with the townspeople and in discovering the duality of human mind. The duality that confuses us more than the bystander why we are what we are. How can we be so selfish while performing a selfless act? Why do we care about so much about something whose absence doesn't matter in long run? Why we love someone who doesn't love us back? I found moments in the book left me feeling that I was sharing a dream with the characters - an eerie feeling indeed but more puzzling than frightening. Did I mention - there is a dwarf (midget) in the book? If you have ever read The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist you would know that any book with a dwarf is a good book.

Sven Birkerts has said that Hamsun has created " works of desperate lyrical romanticism". But Hamsun is also a precursor to and in some ways participant in modernism, writing works that span the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This book is compelling with challenging arguments that you think and perhaps question your beliefs, especially the arguments on societal interpretation of the genius. Birkerts, in his introduction, goes on to say that Mysteries is "compelling in its fans a depth of devotion that owes less to narrative, character development, or evocative prose than to something more elemental, more . . . mysterious." (p. x)
It is thus to me and a novel of ideas that I can truly enjoy.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The Noonday Press, New York. 1967 (1890).
Mysteries: a novel by Knut Hamsun. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1999 (1892).

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