A juicy family chronicle which begins with a birth in an underground burrow in the early 19th Century and stretches forward through time, detailing the fate of the Brosse family up until 1980.
Hans “Hasse” Alfredson is one of those unfairly talented people: as comedian, actor, director and writer he has excelled in all the fields he has chosen as his own, in addition to which he has one of those “I’d listen to him recite the phone book” voices. While primarily known and treasured for his comedy and for his complex film dramas, I also consider him one of Sweden’s better authors. His writings range from the absurd, like his pokerfaced 1960s book about burning debris in a corner of the garden, to the darkly disturbing, like his novella En ond man/An Evil Man, which he later filmed as the internationally acclaimed Den enfaldige mördaren/The Simple-Minded Murder. This novel, Tiden är ingenting/Time Means Nothing, belongs to another category again, but is still very recognizably Alfredson’s.
The book is a highly pleasing concatenation of different styles and genres: historical rural drama, raw comedy, naturalism, magical realism, social satire and psychological study, to name the most obvious ones. All the components are tied together by Alfredson’s beautifully lucid, frothing and often drastic prose, and Tiden är ingenting is an extremely entertaining, fast read despite all its details of history and character.
The second half, where the family expands, gets rhapsodic and lacking in focus and, somewhat logically, loses most of the fairy tale elements of house elves and witchcraft as the story moves into more modern times. Family chronicles can of course become rather meandering over time, but Alfredson maintains structure though the clever concept of treating the Brosse family as an individual, as apparent in the headings of the book’s sections: “Childhood”, “Youth”, “Manhood” and “Old Age”. This conceit is most obvious in the last two sections, “Manhood” telling of how certain members of the family achieve prosperity and some renown in the fields of commerce, academia and the theatre, whereas “Old Age” shows the family’s fortunes in decline. It’s not only intelligent, but also lends itself well to the kind of cynically humorous tragedy the author is telling, and the ending contains so many levels of reverberating irony that I can only call it a masterful and deeply satisfying conclusion – something else which is difficult to accomplish in family chronicles, because how do you know where to end it?
The characters are broadly but believably drawn up, highly colourful and distinct, and I like the way personal traits keep reappearing through the generations. One uniting feature of all Alfredson’s work is his penchant for combining bubbling humour with a salty streak of darkness, and this gift serves him in good stead here, infusing the characters and their actions with an irresistible quality, even those who are – as one of them even admits of himself – rather useless people.
Full of bitterness, humour, imagination, nostalgia and dashes of The Emigrants, this is a novel of singular life and the joy of telling tall tales.
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