History as Exorcism: Greenland's Long Shadow Over Denmark
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because postcolonialism isn’t just for Africa, Asia and South America.
By Tobias Carroll
Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord certainly looks like a historical epic. Set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it concerns Morten Falck, an idealistic Danish priest who travels to his nation’s colony in Greenland. The story follows Falck over several decades and grapples with big questions: national identity, the nature of faith, the pernicious effects of violence. Speaking with Leine, however, reveals another, much more personal, aspect to the novel. He’s certainly telling a historically significant story here — but he’s also working out some of his own demons along the way.
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord won the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2013. It is the first of Leine’s novels to be translated into English, and is also the first part of a trilogy dealing with the history of Greenland and its fraught relationship with Denmark. We spoke with Leine about the roots of the book, his future plans and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
OZY: What was the initial appeal, for you, of moving to Greenland?
Kim Leine: You can say Greenland is Denmark’s Africa. It’s our colonial bad conscience.
OZY: Were you first drawn to writing fiction when you lived over there?
K.L.: I always wanted to be a fiction writer, but I had no idea how to become one. All my family, they have no education at all; I was the first with any education. I always read a lot of books — big, fat, thick novels from the 18th and 19th centuries — and I wanted to be part of that. It’s not until I came to Greenland and settled in a small village on the east coast with 300 people that I got the time to start writing properly.
OZY: How did your family react when you began publishing fiction?
K.L.: They were relieved, I think. They thought I was finally doing something constructive in this life. I had been a drug addict, and I’d had a lot of problems earlier in my life, and when I started to write novels, all of a sudden I started to go the right way. I settled in Copenhagen and started living a quieter life, and began to make some repairs on my family relations.
OZY: There are a few very visceral scenes of medical procedures in the book. Did you draw on your own experiences working as a nurse for that?
K.L.: Yes, absolutely. When you’re a nurse and you confront certain catastrophes, you have to look at it with a cold eye. You can’t involve yourself emotionally, or you just run around screaming like everyone else. And this is a very good principle. When you’re writing, you have to see things. It’s what Flaubert did, and also Hemingway. It’s the neutral style without a lot of adjectives and without a lot of colors.
OZY: What made you settle on the structure of the book?
K.L.: I wanted to place Morten Falck, my protagonist, inside a circle and lock him up, because I myself was locked up inside a circle. That’s the prison of the addict. He starts up in Norway; I was born in Norway. And we both went to Copenhagen to educate ourselves, and from there went to Greenland. And in Greenland we found a breakdown and a resurrection that sent us back to the starting point, to Norway. I’m just re-creating my own story in the 18th century and dragging Morten through it.
OZY: Do you see the historical themes that appear in the novel as having applications toward modern society?
K.L.: Yes, absolutely. Greenland is in the middle of the liberation process. So this is parallel to Greenland, to me, and I just wanted to make a homage to Greenland’s fight for freedom.
Excerpts from The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
The winter of 1784–5. The royal city is inundated with farm labourers and lads who have run from the villeinage of the Stavnsbåd to seek their fortunes. January brings strong frost. The hearses are busy, and the corpses that arrive at the vaults beneath the academy are well preserved, delicate almost, unsmelling and as white as snow. After Laust’s disappearance, Morten has stopped collecting bodies around town, but he earns a small sum from his drawings, which are more detailed than ever before, and some now hang upon the walls of the academy’s teaching rooms.
They look in at the land and see staggered plateaus separated by rock, high above the shore. At each level are houses of stone, timber or peat. Smoke curls from their chimneys. At the highest point is a larger structure with a kind of gateway in front and a cross uppermost on the gable end. A church. Most probably there are at least as many houses as yet concealed from them as those that are visible. Bjerg estimates their number: at least threescore. The inhabitants here must be several hundred strong, the greatest concentration of Greenlanders in the country’s history.
Translated by Martin Aitken.