Tuesday 24 April 2012

Nordic noir: fiction, reality and Tomas Tranströmer

I watched the new Nordic noir, The Bridge, at the weekend.  So far, it doesn’t appeal as much as others of its genre.  The characters aren’t compelling - they all felt so real in The Killing, and in Borgen.  I more or less accepted this new lot while they were on screen, but there’s no sense yet of a life beyond that.  Part of me believes (and believed from the first ever episode) that Sarah Lund is still out there, in another very desirable jumper, having awkward insights into the latest crime and being miserable but persistent.. 

As for Kurt Wallander, I met him last week.  He lit a cigarette almost in my face, so I gave him a dirty look.  No, I’m sane, it happened like this!  Poet in the City put on an event at the British Library to celebrate Tomas Tranströmer, Nobel Prize laureate of 2011.  It was rather grand - co-organised by the Swedish Embassy, with speeches and classical musicians. Diplomatic occasions tend to be cringe-making, but this one was also enjoyable because TT was there, beaming in response to the outbursts of spontaneous applause and standing ovations, and we heard lots of his poems in both Swedish and English, some interestingly set to music.  The Swedish reader turned out to be… Wallander, aka Krister Henriksson. 

When I arrived at the British Library conference centre, my way in was blocked by a man standing in the door lighting a cigarette - the cigarette was outside but he was mostly still inside.  Ah, a Swede, I thought, from his face and his suit, which was stylish in a very unEnglish way.  Knows the rules but doesn’t like them.. very pleased with himself.. looks familiar.    When I said Excuse me (with dirty look) he stood aside very politely, though possibly with a trace of irony...  And soon there he was on stage, reading well enough to break down the prejudice of those of us who think that actors are apt to act poetry, read it too poetically.  I love the Swedish å, similar to ‘awe’ but fuller, deep-throated.    

It was a big shame that Robin Fulton, translator into English of Tranströmer and others, wasn’t there to speak as advertised.  His Bloodaxe Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, has been updated since my version, with some new poems from the mid-2000’s.  In compensation for Fulton’s absence, MPT editor David Constantine talked about truth and poetry, and how poetry challenges our habits of thought and of words.  I picked up a copy of the new MPT afterwards, because it had so much interesting stuff I couldn’t resist, including a very good translation by Ingar Palmlund of Tranströmer’s poem ‘Allegro’.  I’d love to quote all of it but had better not; and won’t quote the amazing last two couplets without the rest of the poem, so here are the second and third.  The speaker is playing Haydn ‘after a dark day’:

The keys are willing.  Mild hammers strike. 
The tone is green, lively and still.

The tone says that freedom exists
and that someone does not pay the emperor tribute.

In his talk, Constantine used two of the very best Tranströmer quotes, so the best of the best.  One from ‘Night Duty’:

The language marches in step with the executioners.
Therefore we must get a new language.

and ‘About History’:

Go like a bloodhound where the truth has trampled.

(Does Wallander ever quote Tranströmer? He should.)  And then there’s the line before that one:

Every problem cries in its own language.

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