By Damian Arguimbau
Sally Altschuler (b. 1953) writes in a style that is at the same time unceremonious and severe. He is good at nailing a story together and merciless in the logic of his plot. And there is never a lack of humor in his novels – be it an illustrated children’s book, an easy reader, or a book aimed at young people, but Altschuler does not compromise the gravity of the action. In all of his novels, harsh, often heartrending, things happen that require the protagonists to redefine their reality. Friends – often, a father – prove to be one’s worst enemy. In his illustrated children’s books, we also meet a thoughtful but narratively restrained Altschuler, who – particularly through the stories of Tudse (Toad) and Spidsmus (Shrew) – at-tempts to grapple with difficult topics, such as the universe and death, for very small children.
Sally Altschuler made a very convincing debut in 1993 with the novel Jordens Salt (The Salt of the Earth), winning two major children’s literature prizes in Denmark, Børnebibliotekarernes Børnebogspris (The Children’s Librarians’ Chil-dren’s Book Prize) and Danmarks Skolebibliotekarforeningens Kulturpris (The Dan-ish School Librarian Association’s Cultural Prize). Jordens Salt is a funny, fanciful and captivating novel about a boy named Lala and a black girl named Naima, who are searching the East for the Salt of the Earth, which was created by the Châtelaine of the Green City and has mysteriously disappeared. They must get this grain of salt to the sea, before it is too late. The book is well-written, filled with eccentric secondary characters, real camels and an enormously exciting plot that is ruthlessly consistent in every twist and turn.
The theme of being betrayed by those closest to you is a theme Altschuler takes up again and again – for example, in the novel Psykocyber (Psychocyber), published a year later and set in Copenhagen sometime in the next century. Mojo and Virtus are 17-years olds, who prefer to spend their time in Cyberworld to which one gains access by putting on a Virtual Reality helmet. Virtus dies in the middle of a cybergame, but survives in Cyberworld. The authorities instigate a search to destroy Virtus, whom they view as a virus, while Mojo and the girl Cath fight to sa-ve Virtus. However, Virtus proves to have his own gruesome plans. He is not at all the person Mojo thought he was and it ends quite badly: Virtus betrays Mojo and takes over Cath’s body by killing her, whereupon Mojo kills Virtus in Cath’s body.
Altschuler’s delight in constructing breathtaking plots is apparent in his next two novels, Manilagaleonen (The Manila Galleon) and Den anden kind (The Other Cheek), which take place alternately in the past and the future. Manilagaleonen, which received the 1996 Gyldendals Boglegat (Gyldendal Book Endowment), is a very quirky novel with a very complicated plot that takes place alternately in 1699 and 1999. Gabriel is a young man of action, obsessed with the idea of plundering the great Spanish Manila Galleon. Gabriel’s counterpart, Mi-chael, lives in 1999. He thinks so much that he never really gets much done. There-fore, the things that happen to him are outside his control.
In his next novel, Altschuler repeats the trick of having a story take place in two different historical eras, this time with a less complicated plot. The novel Den anden kind is about a boy named Bobby, who is in the tenth grade on a class trip to Granada, Spain. His traumatic childhood story is interwoven with a 500-year old tale of the Moor Boabdil, who – in order to gain his own freedom – gives his son Ahmad to his enemies as a hostage. It all goes horribly wrong, when Bobby snaps and murders his teacher with a Moorish dagger.
Verdens navle (The Hub of the Universe) deals with the Castle, which is an isolated part of the Internet that grew out of nothing – without any apparent con-nection to the rest of the Internet or to reality. In the Castle, they have their own creation myth (of course, the Stream is their God!) and, behind every door in the Castle, one finds a new world. Here, the evil Aranea is attempting to steal the key that makes it possible to enter into reality, which also means destruction. Verdens navle is a fascinating jumble of stories, taking place at several levels and locations simultaneously. The result is original and rates high on the en-tertainment barometer. Verdens navle is also about disappointment and betrayal – both in the world of fantasy and reality. Altschuler received Kommuner-nes Skolebiblioteksforenings Forfatterpris (The Municipal School Library Associa-tion’s Author’s Prize) for Verdens navle in 2003.
An acquaintanceship with Altschuler never grows tiresome. He constantly innova-tes his arsenal of techniques and stories. He experiments and, therefore, is in a continuing process of renewal, which along with his indomitable humor results in tremendous vitality, despite his often bittersweet endings.
Translated by Russell Dees
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