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Portrait of a writer

Morten Ramsland

By Lars Bukdahl

In 2005 Morten Ramsland was the greatest and brightest comet in the Danish literary firmament. His breakthrough novel Hundehoved (Doghead) not only received excellent reviews, it also sold like hot cakes and still does.

But no-one saw it coming, the comet that is, for Ramsland’s first two books lay in shrouded in the past (12 and 7 years before), and neither his elusive, sensitive debut collection of poetry Når fuglene driver bort (When Birds Drift Away) (1993), nor the solidly documentary travel novel Akaciedrømme (Acacia Dreams) (1998) made any impact. As reviewers, we were thus totally unprepared for Hundehoved when we first opened it in the spring of 2005, but we were immediately captivated by the impassioned labyrinthine family chronicle: there is simply no time to look back. The reader races along tortuous, winding paths and past one grotesque blind alley after the other.
The novel follows the earthly vicissitudes of three generations living in Norway and Denmark from the 1930s until now. The youngest of the clan, the young painter Asger, tells the story, or to be more precise, the many narratives are told through him because he is so completely in their power that he has little choice. The narratives are about major misunderstandings, disappointments and portentous betrayals and very small euphoric glimpses of happiness. The paternal grandfather, Askild, ends up in a concentration camp on account of his over-imaginative smuggling activities and returns home as a cubist naval architect. The father, Niels, nicknamed Flap-ears as a child, is forced to wear an awful corset with the result that street children can more easily put the dirt in his ears which his mother suspects he was doing himself. There are many more colourful characters and even more colourful stories about them. At times the uncontrollable, disturbed figures are the driving force behind the narratives, but it is mostly the intricately-woven, insane narratives which drive the characters and the narrator too. The crazier the characters and narratives are, the truer they seem to the reader, and the funnier and more moving they are at the same time. Most of the characters have nicknames because they are larger than life, and it is significant that the grandfather calls the very narrator a Liar, which in the context of the book is a mark of honour.

Successful multi-generational novels in the magic realism genre are few and far between in Denmark. Two soul-brothers are Peter Høeg and Ib Michael; uncles from abroad might be people like Günther Grass and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a natural spin-off from his work on Hundehoved Ramsland has, in recent years, published a whole stream of illustrated books, some of which share motifs with his novel, such as Pedes uhyrer (Pede’s Monsters) and Onkel Pedro kommer hjem (Uncle Pedro Comes Home) (both 2005).
As you can see, there is no end to Hundehoved! This book simply won’t tolerate being put on a leash!

Translated by Don Bartlett

 
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