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Portrait of a writer

Merete Pryds Helle

By Erik-Skyum Nielsen

A literary portrait of Merete Pryds Helle (b. 1965) can suitably begin with two broad generalisations concerning the decade in which she emerged as a writer – for she is both typical of her age and something quite unique. The period between 1990 and 2000 in Danish writing is especially characterised by 1) the emergence of 6-8 young, important female writers who combine a sensorily-concrete, phenomenological style of writing with an investigation of existence and reality at all levels, and 2) a minimalist tendency, since most younger writers normally work inquisitively at the lower level of the novel and the novella. There is, however, a striking exception to this rule – and her name is Merete Pryds Helle. In 2001, she admittedly published a typically 90s-style fragmentary and mini-novel, Solsiden (The Sunny Side), about a girl’s and subsequently woman’s development and life-account, but, in its existentialist project, this beautiful book’s depiction of its main character, Gedske, was anything but minimalist – on the contrary, it was more maximalist, total, by virtue of an ambitious conversation before the Gate of the Dead with the Egyptian god Osiris. And when Merete Pryds Helle achieved her breakthrough as an author in 2000, it was with the very large – positively colossal – novel Fiske i livets flod (Fishing in the River of Life).

   Fishing in the River of Life takes the form of an attempt to embrace several times and cultures. Three ages are studied, three types of society are analysed, but cutting across these eras of history the author finds to a great extent the same fateful patterns. At the lowest archaeological stratum of the chronology, the story is told of how the art of writing emerges in Ur, close to present-day Baghdad, more than 5000 years ago. A potter, Enksilub, who from his daily work is used to sending quick messages in the form of small clay figures on pots, one day gets the bright idea that there must be an easier way. This leads to his inventing the pictography that will subsequently form the basis of an alphabet. At the middle layer of the eras is the account of a medieval Carthusian monastery in Denmark. We now find ourselves in anno domini 1169, at a point when a static, religiously based culture is eroding, because people have acquired confidence in their own ability to create and think for themselves. Lastly, the action takes place in our own age in the first and fourth parts of the book – in the 1990s, in a family of Danish researchers and intellectuals, with the archaeologist Peter at the centre. His top-position as a scholar is being threatened by a younger contender, who has miraculously constructed his completely own three-dimensional scanner, with the aid of which he is able to bring to life the environment of man-made sounds which, for example, surrounded a clay pot in a Sumerian pottery workshop. The novel creates an enigmatic, labyrinthine impression. Stylistically, its ambition is to combine writing that is lyrical, hymnal and magical with a research-based historical realism. By its patterns of repetition it claims, on the one hand, that human life constantly develops the same conflicts, yet, on the other hand, by juxtaposing and contrasting mutually distant cultures, it makes everything relative – both historically and culturally. The reader finds the same double-thinking going on in Merete Pryds Helle’s two novels Vandpest (Water Thyme) and Men Jorden står til evig tid (But the Earth will stand for ever), from 1993 and 1996 respectively. In the former, the story is of a young couple who, during a balloon journey unwittingly end up in a natural environment that has run riot and no longer observes scientific models. In the latter, a grim story is told of a daughter’s emancipation from her mother. In both instances, the individual and the specific are registered in a space of collective figures and thought-patterns: in ‘Water Thyme’ via a dialogue with scientific literature, in the following book by the action being broken up by a theological track, with angels that perhaps intervene and govern the course of events.

   There are authors who pursue one and only one artistic project and who, in book after book, are basically writing the same work. Others surf between many genres and types of aesthetics. Merete Pryds Helle, on the other hand, seeks in every book she writes to come up with another suggestion for literature than readers have previously seen. This one, as one likes, can refer to as following a single intention or as putting several to the test. What is special about what she does lies in the double principle of the individual book as a declaration of principle and active creation. She is typical of Danish writing in the 1990s, though, in her basic-research interest for the plurality and contemporaneity of life’s dimensions – exemplified in the above works by the existential, the religious, the biological, the psychological and the social – as well as by history and art. But Merete Pryds Helle is her very own in, from one book to the next, conceiving literature in depth – an endeavour that is already visible in her first two books, the debut novellas Imod en anden ro (Towards another tranquillity) and the novel Bogen (The Book), both of which appeared in 1990. The latter actually achieves the feat of making the reader an accessory to a murder!

   Merete Pryds Helle, who has lived in Italy for the past few years, is, apart from her writing, actively involved in the development of new forms of literary communication and dissemination, including a computer game and periodicals on CD-ROM.

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