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Portrait of a writer

Jørn Riel

By Henrik Wivel

Photo: © Lisbeth Thorlacius

The most important of Jørn Rielīs stories open up the arctic space and routes - this is achieved through a myriad of entertaining narratives of varying scope and character. Rielīs intention is to clarify his premises as a writer and find his language. But it is also a question of entertainment and perception, two areas which are inextricably bound together for Jørn Riel. As far as he is concerned a good story is only entertaining if it is also meaningful and embodies a truth about mutual human relationships and their relationship to a nature that is bigger than the human and defines its fundamental being, Eros and language. Jørn Rielīs arctic universe is assembled through a combination of prose books for adults and children, such as the trilogy The House of My Fathers (Mine fædres hus 1970-71), The Girl who Searched for the Mother of the Sea (Pigen som søgte havets mor 1972), the autobiographical trilogy You Live in Your Name (Du bor i dit navn 1976-78) and the slim, poignant novel Before the Morrow (Før morgendagen 1975) - possibly Rielīs most beautiful book - plus ten volumes of so-called "tall stories" (1974-96) and finally the major trilogy Song for Life (Sangen for livet 1983-85). This arctic universe is a place from which he can express himself with literary and humanistic conviction.

The trilogy Song for Life has a definitive role in this sequence. It takes the form of an Eskimo account of creation, from earliest times through to today. The movement in this Eskimo family saga goes circumpolar and geographically from Alaska across the Northwest Territory to what is so beautifully called The Place of Expectation: Greenland, which is crossed and settled from coast to coast. But in another sense the novel moves through its throng of stories towards an ever higher degree of humanity and an Eskimo identity which is valid in its own right and in which the bonds of genealogy are tied across 1,000 years of history and common destiny with omens, invocations and flights of the soul as the spiritual resonator which permeates the stories - tales which are in every respect moveable and moving.

In Song for Life, as elsewhere under the arctic skyīs six-monthly cycle of brilliant summer sun and oppressive winter darkness, Jørn Riel has caught the formalities perfectly, knows the Eskimo languageīs saga-like conciseness and subtle humour; however, the truth of the stories is their unparalleled own. In this respect, Jørn Rielīs universe is a dream, a utopian creation of what he has called a īcommunistī society. A community of people living without national boundaries and private ownership and who generously distribute their delights - also amorous, which Jørn Riel has certainly never attempted to hide! But also a society of individuals who, via their rituals, have created an enormously sophisticated life rhythm in which responsibility is built into the struggle for survival and where a person is not judged by their material power or physical strength, but īby their disposition and deedsī, as Jørn Riel states.

But Jørn Rielīs utopia is not vapid exotica from somewhere which is seen from a European perspective as being a peripheral territory. There is a horror and a ruthlessness at large in the stories which, with a lyric beauty born from pain, is reflected in nature which expresses itself mercilessly. And it is here that Jørn Riel strikes at the heart of the universality of existence. He is concerned with the fundamental form of existence. Life or death with love as the bridgehead. With no arrogance, anxiety or deceit. When nature makes such fundamental demands on survival and is so greater a force than the human being, everyone is aware of their limitations and faces life without prerequisites or fear for the end of life. Jørn Rielīs long journey towards the arctic heart is a journey towards humility and enlightenment.

One would think that Jørn Rielīs search was specific to the Eskimo people, the Inuit. And indeed Jørn Riel is never in doubt about who it is, in every respect, that has the rights to the Arctic regions and naturally belongs there with their way of life. But as his numerous tall stories demonstrate, other people can also adapt their way of life to the īPeopleīs Countryī and find their way to themselves and each other in the snow-light between the glaciers, mountains and fjords. The freebooters of the tall stories have peeled off the worst layer of civilisation and live, as the author behind them, uninhibited and completely without prejudice. Outside time, but close to the truth about human nature.

(1999)

Translated by Gaye Kynoch
The photo is reproduced with permission from the photographer. The photo must not be reproduced on paper or digitally. Further rights can be obtained by contacting Lisbeth Thorlacius +45 46 40 95 93

 
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