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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Lars Saabye Christensen - Beatles

Beatles - Lars Saabye Christensen

Reading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane.
Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo I remember so fondly! 

The English edition I owe boasts that 'Beatles' is 'The International Bestseller' and in fact this is the book that made Mr Christensen famous in Norway and abroad. 
Not to mention that a few months ago I spotted a hoodie eagerly leafing through this same book at a bus stop in the sleepy English town of Hereford (just don't ask me how I ended up there!). Actually this single readerspotting would be enough to confirm that 'Beatles' did indeed become a bestseller. I guess the title helped, though.

Published in 1984, when its author was only 33, this novel has been translated into 16 languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and - surprise surprise! - is going to become a major Norwegian movie that will have its premiere on February 2014. Apparently the chief reason why it took so long to bring 'Beatles' onto the big screen is that the prerequisite to have the movie made was to ensure that the Fab Four songs would have been in it. And it took ages (and money) to get that.

Putting its International Bestseller reputation aside, as I wrote above, 'Beatles' is one of those books having a very personal meaning to me. 
Just like it happened with 'The Half Brother' - the first novel by Christensen that I read - most of the action here is set in a two mile radius from Majorstua, one of the main intersections in West Oslo. Call me weird, but spotting toponyms such as Blindern, Bygdøy Allé, Solli Plass, Slemdalsveien, Chateau Neuf and Uranienborg Park made me actually happier than the countless references to The Beatles themselves.

With a plot taking place between 1965 and 1972 and with every chapter titled after a Beatles' song (plus a couple of McCartney and Lennon solo career singles), Christensen wrote a wistful and clever novel.
The four protagonists - Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola - idolize the Fab Four to the point they identify themselves with them thus becoming Paul, John, George and Ringo. 
Even though their own dream of making a band called The Snafus is perpetually postponed due to the lack of music instruments, the four Oslo kids grow up listening in almost religious awe to each and every Beatles LP and EP. As it happens, their tastes in music do evolve over the course of the years leading them to 'discover' Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, and the blues. But the Beatles stay untouchable and every rumour implying that the Fab Four are on their way to split up is return to sender by the boys in disbelief. 

Aged only 14 at the beginning of the novel, Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola are 21 at its end. As you might wonder, not only their favourite records have changed but also their passions and interests switching from football, skiing and fishing to girls, alcohol, drugs and politics. That's why topics such as the Vietnam War, marijuana planting, the involvement in the ranks of the Young Socialists and the Norwegian European Communities membership referendum in 1972 take the floor.

Gradually what had become as the story of four easy and semi-idyllic childhoods turn into a gloomy and disillusioned tale. One by one all of the four boys fail at some stage of their young lives. Some of them fall deep into an abyss of either drug addiction, alcoholic stupour or nervous breakdown but somehow manage to come up for air, at least for a while. Just like The Beatles themselves, if you like. 

And it's with this bleak atmosphere that the novel ends up. 
I know that Christensen wrote two sequels but it looks like they have not yet been translated into English.
All in all I'm not entirely sure I'd like to read the sequels. On the one hand I prefer to leave Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola where they are, at the young age of 21. On the other hand I remember too well the disappointment I felt when reading 'The Closed Circle' by Jonathan Coe whose excellent 'The Rotters' Club' bears many a similitude with 'Beatles' (four teenagers, the 1960s turning into the 1970s, music, politics, petting). 

If these translations see the light, I hope that a better translator than Don Bartlett will be given the job. Nothing personal, Don, but it's the second time that your work doesn't convince me at all after what you did to 'Child Wonder' by Roy Jacobsen. 
Tacky mistakes aside (in the English edition Kim comes back to Iceland and tells his crosswords maniac dad he was in a 'cold place, six letters' as the seven lettered 'Iceland' is spelled 'Island' - six letters - in Norwegian), Mr Bartlett here seems to enjoy leaving the reader in the dark. The examples of this sadistic pleasure of the translator are countless, but I will mention a couple which give you a general idea of what I mean.

Page 503. The years is 1972. Kim gets a university loan. Don meekly translates: 'Four Ibsens and the basic grant'. Any idea of what that means? You need to Google 'Ibsen banknote 1970' to find out. Which is four 1,000 Norwegian crowns (kroner) banknotes with the face of Henrik Ibsen on them.
Page 493. Kim is in Iceland visiting a former girlfriend of his. First-person narrative. All in a sudden in the middle of a dialogue, Don switches to the third-person narrative ('she told him'). 

And then there is the issue with Norwegian addresses and cultural references. To translate them or not to translate them? - Mr Bartlett might have pondered. The problem is that he didn't make his mind up.
So it happens that the magazine 'Nå' ('Now') and the newspaper 'Aftenposten' ('The Evening Post') keep their Norwegian names while the leftist newspaper 'Klassekampen' becomes 'Class Conflict' and the public television NRK becomes the 'Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation'. I wonder why.
Another problem comes up with the translation of nouns. Now Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) adds up suffixes so that, say, 'Storting' (the National Parliament) becomes 'det Stortinget'. But the name of the Parliament is Storting and not Storting-et. Now, go and tell this to Don Bartlett for whom it's 'the Stortinget'.

I am sorry, I am really sorry to spoil my review by taking the piss out of the translator but I believe that 'Beatles' would have deserved a better treatment.