Monday, February 21, 2011

A sad detective in tandoori marinade: Zac O'Yeah's Scandinavistan

[Did this review for Biblio. The table of contents for the latest issue is here - many fine pieces, which can be read on PDF after free registration]

Detectives in noir fiction are frequently described as “hardboiled”, which suggests a tough, cynical man carrying the baggage of a tragic past but soldiering on regardless – masochistically working on unpleasant cases that deepen his view of things, tailing scoundrels and femme fatales through shadowy places that serve as metaphors for the darkness in his own soul.

This adds up to a brooding figure of the sort played in films by charismatically world-weary actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. But now consider Public Intelligence Officer Herman Barsk, the lead in Zac O’Yeah’s novel Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. Eighteen pages into the book, when confronted by evidence of cannibalism in a restaurant kitchen where he himself has just eaten, Barsk does “the only thing an old cop could do in a situation like this: he shat his pants”. It’s an early clue that he might not be the typical noir hero. As the narrative progresses, we will get many more.

But then O’Yeah’s novel is hardly straight-faced crime fiction, or straight-faced anything. A genre-hopping work of speculative fiction (as the title suggests), it’s set in the near future, in a world where most of continental Europe has not just been rendered tropical or desert by global warming, but also colonised by India, with some very ulta-pulta results.
When the European Union was being liquidated, and its member countries sold off their industries and privatised their highways and railroads, international conglomerates with head offices in Asia bought up pretty much everything. Sweden was given away as a special discount offer when Germany and Switzerland were sold – perhaps due to the fact that most people could not really tell Sweden and Switzerland apart. These things happen in a global economy.
Thus, the restaurant Barsk has his epiphany in is called the Tandoori Moose; it’s one of the few non-vegetarian joints still operating in Gautampuri (formerly Gothenberg), because vegetarianism is the dominant lifestyle choice in this world, and Buddhism the key religion. Concepts like reincarnation and karma are taken entirely at face value, and why not – after all, “the weather had transformed alongside the political and economic changes, bestowing a sense that it was fated to happen – that all was pre-destined”.

In this desi-fied Sweden, India and Indianness impinge on the local culture in the most unexpected ways. Roads have been renamed (and have “randomly blinking traffic lights”), the Ashoka Pillar dominates town squares, and Committing Nuisance in a Public Place is against the law. Rowdy kids have access to “Thums-Up bottle bombs containing an explosive cashew-fenny kerosene mix”,
cries of “Hain?” merge with the local “Höh”, and a policeman chasing a female hooligan might yell “Hey, goondi!”

Extremely entertaining though all these details are in themselves, there is also a plot – it centres on the dead bodies found by Barsk in the tandoor and involves a group of murderously sociopathic girls, a mysterious ashram, a cheap restaurant that serves food to the poor, and a British submarine preparing to “liberate” Gautampuri. Barsk himself is in love with a married Indian woman named Kumkum, and the personal stakes rise for him when he discovers that her husband is connected with the murder case.

Actually, I didn’t think the storyline was the most compelling thing about this book: it sags a little midway as subplots proliferate, suspects and stool pigeons flit in and out of sight, and chapters end in the patented style of pulp thrillers – “Presently, he became aware of a shadow sneaking up behind him” – with a few (deliberately?) corny analogies thrown in: “It was the sound of the silence one might hear while balancing a trampoline over purgatory”. The plot gets confusing near the end; I had to revisit the final few chapters to confirm how everything fit together.

But Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan is a winner because of its premise and especially because Barsk is such a memorable character. We stay with him for each of the book’s 400 pages, as he trips morosely from one misadventure to another. At one point we are told that when he volunteered to donate his organs, his body was rejected as “not usable”. (He has poor eyesight too; trying to identify a lurker at a crucial point in his investigation, he wishes balefully that he had got himself a pair of spectacles.) Constantly aware that the only reason he exists is that his prostitute mother “had been so drunk she had forgotten to take an abortion pill the day after the condom burst”, he spends much of the book swallowing Loperamide tablets to keep his bowels in order, and mooning about his recently deceased dog.
Bobby used to come and sniff his sweaty socks, but the mongrel (75 percent Husky) had died after accumulating too much negative karma from pissing on every lamp-post on town. Bobbylessness was hard. All that remained were the memories of pattering paws and claws scratching the creaky floorboards. Time healed no wounds, at least not in Barsk’s soul.
Even when, against all expectations, he finally gets to undrape Kumkum’s sari, the potentially erotic moment is described thus: “It came off a layer at a time. Kumkum turned like a tandoori chicken on an automatically rotating skewer, Barsk thought, and the analogy made him hungry.”

In short, there is nothing remotely dashing or heroic about Barsk. He isn’t even the sort of character who is sometimes referred to as a “little hero” – the Frodo Baggins-like underdog who triumphs against the odds. The few times he does come good, it feels more like an accident of karma than anything he might reasonably be credited for.

Of course, his actions and responses are defined by the chaos that continually unfolds around him, and the narrative is full of passages of inspired absurdity (a dead horse being perfumed by a coolie on the location shoot of a Hindi film - don't ask), funny asides (“In the Masti Mela amusement park, a pyromaniac had set the ghost house on fire and several ghosts had to be hospitalised”) and too many clever ideas to keep track of. (A less imaginative writer might have developed a whole sub-plot around the theme of the Nobel Prize being renamed the Reliance-Nobel Prize, but in this book it gets exactly one casual mention.)

O’Yeah himself is of Finnish ethnicity but he has married into India and lived in Bangalore for the last few years, and his writing suggests a basic affection for the country combined with the bemused perspective of someone who comes from a vastly different cultural landscape (and who must still sometimes feel like he’s been thrust into a Terry Pratchett novel). He has a ear for the cadences and peculiarities of middle-class Indian speech, such as the young corporal calling a potential trouble-maker “Uncle” even while preparing to arrest him. At other times, there is light caricaturing of Indian “types”: a popular movie actor is named Phillumappa Ishtarjee, a yoga teacher is Swamijee Consultantwallah, and Kumkum’s husband is – what else – Patiparmeshwar Gharwallah.

Occasionally one gets the sense that the vision presented here isn’t fully thought out; that the author, having defined the broad contours of his world, is basically having fun as he goes along, throwing in eye-popping bits as they occur to him. Some details read like O’Yeah thought them up in a trance while he sat typing, so that you have to go back a few pages to confirm that you read what you thought you read – was there really a reference to butter-chicken-flavoured condoms? What’s with the remote-controlled camera that looks like a mutton samosa? Some of this stuff gets outright silly at times. Take this reference to a recently colonised Mars:
The Red Planet had since become an overpopulated suburb of New Delhi, renamed NOIDA Phase 819, and due to its colour it was a favourite retirement destination for old Maoists who demonstrated every other day and called for bandhs to have the planet renamed “Maors”.
Given that the fictional world described in Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan is not one of notable technological advancement (Internet connections are still slow, for example, and the “holophones” used by people have to be knocked about before they yield a dial tone), the passage above doesn’t seem organic to this setting. But that might be the wrong approach to reading this book. As I went along, I found it useful to think of Scandinavistan not so much as an internally consistent fantasy universe created from the bottom up with meticulously defined rules and limits of its own, but as a hysterical, hyper-exaggerated rendering of the idea that India – with all its chaos and contradictions – might become a world-dominating power someday (an idea that in any case doesn’t belong exclusively to the realm of fantasy these days – just read newspaper editorials).

Rereading the Mars passage in this light, I thought of the times I’ve joked with friends about
how Delhi’s suburbs might engorge and devour the entire country some day, given the relentless expansion of the National Capital Region in all directions. Then one wonders: given a scenario where India takes over the world, is it so hard to believe that things would become as anarchic and outlandish as described here? Would anything be off-limits? Probably not – by the end of the book, it seems almost normal that a naked, marinade-coated Barsk should be running down Bangla Marg with a sword in his hand. I hope O’Yeah revisits Scandinavistan and its endearingly ungallant hero soon.

[More information on O'Yeah and his earlier work - including a Gandhi biography that is still available only in Swedish - can be found at his official website]


  1. The setting sounds a lot like Gilliam's Brazil.

  2. thanks for this nice post 111213

  3. Sounds fascinating! Thanks for posting!

  4. William Powell ,One of the most loved detectives on film , is also atypical.

  5. Rahul: I was talking about noir detectives and leading men - Powell never played one, as far as I know.

  6. Are you saying "Thin Man" is not noir? Maybe you are right..but it did have some element of noir in it.

  7. I find it strange that lots of people think India is vegetarian. Vegetarianism, despite Brahminisation, is confined to a very small minority of the population. And even traditionally vegetarian families seem to be going the other way.

  8. Rahul: no, I wouldn't call the Thin Man series noir in the way I mean it here - but yes, they do have a few elements sprinkled here and there. More to the point, the Powell screen persona is very different from the sort of noir hero I'm talking about.

    aandthirtyeights: oh I assure you Zac knows all that - nor is he suggesting that Buddhism is the majority religion in India!