Monthly Archives: February 2015

Writing in the foothills

Karen Blixen wrote about her African farm. Photo: Carl van  Vechten. 1959. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blixen3b41298u.jpg

Karen Blixen wrote about her African farm. Photo: Carl van Vechten. 1959. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blixen3b41298u.jpg

Karen Blixen’s Den Afrikanske Farm (Out of Africa, 1937) is probably the most famous, internationally acclaimed Danish novel. Though I do not kid myself to have the great skill of Blixen, I like the parallel of her story with mine: A Danish woman immigrating to a foreign country to set up her livelihood and who starts to write late in life. I hope of course that similarities end there – I do not have a philandering husband, there is no Denys Finch-Hatton and though we may have had thoughts of living sustainably off the land at one point, we have abandoned this project and I have stuck to my secure employment.

It was with some amusement that I first heard of Erling Jepsen’s Den Sønderjyske Farm (The South-Jutland Farm). Inspired by Blixen’s masterpiece, Jepsen wrote his third novel about Allan and his childhood community in Gram. Nearly appropriating Blixen’s work, this novel starts by describing the landscape of Gram and how the main character, Allan, had a rabbit farm at the foothills of Gram Bakke.

Unlike Africa, Denmark is a terribly flat place. The highest places reach only some 170m  into the sky. Gram Bakke is no Ngong mountain and the cultural difference between the west-southern Jutes and the east-southern Jutes is not really the same as the cultural differences Blixen encountered in Kenya between colonisers and the colonised. A black woman, Mkali, does feature in the novel, but she is the daughter of an African-American soldier and a German woman. Perhaps her untimely end in an unsympathetic community draws references to the impact of the colonisers in Kenya on the first nations people in Blixen’s novel.

Blixen's inspiration for a tale about a farm probably ends there - the farm becomes a place where unreliable adults are not welcome

Blixen’s inspiration for a tale about a farm probably ends there – the farm becomes a place where unreliable adults are not welcome

The humour of this author is warm, understated and sharp, as we learn about Allan’s attempts to impress and be acknowledged by his father, the failed milkman who got a bit too close to his daughter. The son suffers terribly for the father’s sins and childhood in Gram is a gruesome affair. In spite of the odds against him, Allan appears to grow up to live in Copenhagen and become a succesful writer who could not imagine writing without Coffee Punch – a drink from his homelands, made by pouring enough strong coffee into a cup that you can no longer see the bottom and then adding akvavit or ‘snaps’ until you can see the bottom again. Stir in sugar to taste, and the coffee will ensure you stay alert, while the snaps will release your creative juices.

I am not sure it is advice I will take in my pursuit of writing, though when I sit empty before the computer, I could do with a bit of creative release.

Jepsen’s first novel, Ingen Grund til Overdramatisering (No reason for too much drama, 1999), is similarly about a budding writer, whose main concern seems to be how to find a way to live off the public purse while figuring out his writing practice and life in general. This also seems like poor advice to the budding writer and probably explains a thing or two about what has gone wrong with the Danish welfare model.

I have wondered before how penniless Hemingway and the rest of the artist community in Paris in the 1920s could afford living how they did in Paris. My husband points out that in the past most artists and writers have either been from well-to-do families – such as Karen Blixen – or if from an impoverished background had a patron or two to support them – such as Hans Christian Andersen.

In Denmark, Julius Bomholt’s introduction of arms-length art support in 1964 legitimised the State’s support of arts and culture and a desire to support merit rather than wealth (in Australia Whitlam achieved the same in 1974). The pursuit of artistic expression became the province of all talented people. But of course you usually have to show merit first to be supported. Jepsen’s budding writer had shown none of that, other than being mistaken for a more or less successful screen writer.

How does one support oneself to get the time and the space to write? Should society support people who decide to abandon their education or paying job to follow their dreams to create? If so, who should decide which people are deserving of the support and how?

Advertisements

An old man and a determined woman

A young man by the sea, France. Photo: Andreas 1985.

A young boy by the sea, France. Photo: Andreas 1985.

After enjoying Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, I decided to read the book that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 – The Old Man and the Sea. The library had it, not in English, but in Danish as a sound book. A number of cardinal sins already committed right there – a book should be read in the language in which it was written and listening clearly is a different experience from reading.

Santiago is the old man living in Cuba as a fisherman, but he is out of luck. For 85 days he has not caught anything and the boy, Manolin, is no longer allowed to go to sea with him. Santiago goes out on his own and catches a large marlin. He is dragged further out to sea by the large animal and it takes three days before it dies and Santiago can return to Cuba. He ties the fish to the skiff and raises his sail for the passat winds to blow him home, victorious. However, the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks and Santiago fights a brave fight firstly to protect his catch and secondly to protect his own life. He returns to the shore in one piece, but the marlin is reduced to its skeleton.

Much has been written about this story’s meaning – it is a much studied and analysed novella. Hemingway is quoted as saying:
No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.

I was mesmerised by the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing (or perhaps the reader’s voice?) The writing has a certain calm and patient quality. The story is a slow and patient battle between two proud creatures – Santiago and the marlin. While Santiago wins through his perseverance, they are both beaten by the sharks. Santiago’s time waiting on the sea brings with it lots of monologue, reflection and introspection as well as description of the natural environment in almost spiritual tones.

In one sense The Little Mermaid symbolises the helplessness of women Hemingway is proponent of. Except she made her own choice. Edvard Eriksen: Den Lille Havfrue, 1913. Photo: Mick 2015.

In one sense The Little Mermaid symbolises the helplessness of women Hemingway is proponent of. Except she made her own choice fully aware of the dire consequences. Edvard Eriksen: Den Lille Havfrue, 1913. Photo: Mick 2015.

With my friend’s warning that Hemingway was a male chauvinist ringing in my ears, I was struck by a particular view of the sea that Santiago explains. Though others might refer to the sea in male terms, especially when it shows its unrepentant fury, Santiago considers the sea a woman because like a woman the sea cannot help what happens, it just happens. No women – aside from the sea – feature in this novel. However, this way of equating the nature of the sea with the purported helplessness of a woman to determine her own destiny is an inexcusable infantalisation of women.

Perhaps this view is Hemingway’s response to the gradual liberation of women through his lifetime, which may have made his philandering and womanising more difficult. Juxtapose this with my other reading, Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures on Women and Literature she gave in 1928 at Cambridge University. Her basic tenet is that for women to write literature she must have her own money and her own room, quite literally. And that women need access to education. This is at a time when women still largely were property of men, first their fathers, then their husbands and a time when the Oxbridge universities were entirely male dominated and largely closed to women, expect for select faculties. Yet, Woolf reflects, if one only knew women as described by men in literature, one would imagine them to be even greater than men.

A young woman jumping in a lake, Norway. Photo: Lone 1981.

A young woman jumping in a lake, Norway. Photo: Lone 1981.

At the time when Hemingway was developing a writing career in the cafés of Paris, Woolf stood up for women in the halls of Cambridge and called out the reasons why only few women were able to do what he was was.

If through the 20th century all men retained Hemingway’s ossified view of women as helpless creatures unable to determine their own destiny, then gender equality would still be a major battle in the Western world. It still is in some places – even in the Western world – but when girls are given access to education, they excel at traditional male subjects and in 70% of countries exceed the performance of boys. It is only a matter of time before this excellence and excess will show in the centres of power.

In Denmark, it seems the first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Smith, is much maligned  for being a woman, just as Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was. Gillard famously admonished the leader of the opposition in her Misogyny speech – reflecting perhaps that we have some way to go still before women are judged for what they do, rather than their gender.

For the first time, in my home state of Queensland, a woman has taken a party from opposition to victory in a state election. She has also included a record majority of women in the Cabinet room with eight out of 14 ministers being women. Time will tell whether people will judge her on her performance or on her gender. I hope for the first, perhaps against hope?

Trust and freedom of expression

 

Flowers at the synagogue in Krystalgade following the Copenhagen shootings. Photo: Lone 2015.

Flowers at the synagogue in Krystalgade following the Copenhagen shootings. Photo: Lone 2015.

We did not learn about the Copenhagen shootings until we lay in bed, checking facebook on the Ipad. We heard sirens when we strolled around the lakes after dinner, but this is normal given Riget (the hospital of Lars von Trier’s tv series) is quite close by. We saw nothing out of the ordinary to reveal the horror that was happing around us: three people, including the offender, killed and several wounded right here in our local area.

The first incident was on Østerbro at an event to debate art, blasphemy and freedom of speech to mark the 26th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Police attended due to participation of the Swedish artist, Lars Vilks, who has given name to the organising body of the event, The Lars Vilks Committee. In 2007, a couple of years after the Danish Mohammad cartoons, Vilks drew a picture of Mohammad as a dog, following on from a participatory art installation movement in Linkjoping in Sweden, also known as Rondellhund. Following terror threats, his protection by police is now constant. This event followed a similar event last year and watching the YouTube clip of it is like watching a prophecy of what happened at 3.30 pm on Saturday 14 February 2015. A man with a machine gun shot randomly into the cafe and killed a man – Finn Nørgaard, a Danish filmmaker, who was attending the event. Three police officers were also wounded.

The second incident took place at the synagogue in Krystalgade in the inner city of Copenhagen. The Jewish community was celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. In the early hours of Sunday morning, a young man, seemingly drunk, walked up close to the 37-year-old guard, Dan Urzan, who was protecting the entrance of the synagogue. The young man shot Urzan with a gun and two police officers were wounded, while the offender escaped.

At about 5am on Sunday 15 February 2015, Police confronted a young man, 22, on Nørrebro. He opened fire against the police officers and was promptly killed. Police expect him to be the gun man and are still investigating if the actions were part of organised terror against the Danish people, or whether it was the actions of an unstable person acting alone.

A sense of solidarity outside the synagogue in Krystalgade in Copenhagen. Photo: Lone 2015.

A sense of solidarity outside the synagogue in Krystalgade in Copenhagen. Photo: Lone 2015.

As police continue to investigate, there are many reactions possible. As we walk the streets of Copenhagen, there is little evidence that anything is different. People still walk the streets, rush by on their bikes and stop to feed the swans at the lakes.

Like many others, I went past the Synagoge on Monday morning. I don’t know if it was the number of people, the masses of flowers and lit candles in front of the Synagoge, the eager news reporters and photographers reporting in a variety of languages, or the police officers with machine guns, but I was deeply affected by the mood, the situation. While machine guns displayed in public is disconcerting, I left with an overwhelming sense of solidarity and even security in this mass of people of very diverse backgrounds who came to show respect.

How do we react to protect this wonderful country from future threats? I believe we need to do three things:

  1. We stand up for freedom of expression. We cannot be bullied into fear and quiet. And we must not stand by silently when others are persecuted, no matter their religion or ethnic background. Freedom of expression, by the way, includes the right to wear religious or cultural symbols.
  2. We resist the temptation to engage in divisive Us and Them narratives. It is not Christians against Muslims. It is not immigrants against Danes with pedigree. It is not right against left politics. We need to embrace diversity with empathy, inclusion and solidarity.
  3. We hold on to the social trust that is Denmark’s greatest asset. All people living in Denmark must extend trust and hence respect to a greater diversity of people in the community. If we shift the Danish foundation from trust to fear, we could find ourselves in a very different community, with security gates, segregation, firearms for protection and rising inequality.

Denmark must not lose this trust that builds social capital. As French Ambassador to Denmark, Francois Zimeray, said our trust-based society is valuable and a role model to the world. It is what makes Denmark such a wonderful place to visit and make home.

Police officers with machine guns are not a common sight in Denmark. We need to make sure it remains so. Photo: Lone 2015.

Police officers with machine guns are not a common sight in Denmark. We need to make sure it remains so. Photo: Lone 2015.

Thank you to the dedicated police officers who protect us. Sincere condolences to all who have lost loved ones. I wish speedy recovery to those who have been wounded.  And speedy recovery to this country, this town. I am sure we can grow it stronger, together. Peace.

The roots of belonging

I even love the cold, especially when the sun is shining. Photo: Lone 2015.

I even love the cold, especially when the sun is shining. Photo: Lone 2015.

The plan to come to Copenhagen for a year did not come to me in a flash – it evolved slowly from that feeling of not quite belonging where I was. A tiredness from being a just little bit out of place, a little bit different. A feeling of being surrounded by truths a little bit – or sometimes a lot – different from what I knew to be true when I was much younger than today.

We have now been in Denmark for eight weeks and in our flat for five. It is four weeks since our older son left to go back home to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia – home to our younger son who did not want to come. Thankfully, they report that they are both doing well.

In that time we have been exploring our new place. And: I love Copenhagen. There are so many things to see, to do, to enjoy. I love hearing Danish language around me. I even love the cold, especially on a sunny day when every spot of sunshine on the street walks fills up with people catching just a bit of that sun. I love seeing my family and my friends. And I love that my husband is so completely on the journey with me. But it is too soon to say if I belong here.

It is hard to come home when you don’t belong writes Maren Uthaug in her debut novel Og sådan blev det (And so it was) from 2013. Like the main character, Kirsten, Uthaug lives in Denmark, but her parents are Sami and Norwegian. The story is about going back to ones roots to discover identity. Kirsten is born as Risten in Northern Norway into a Sami community. When she is seven years old, her parents separate and with her Norwegian father she moves into the home of a well-meaning Danish woman. In all her well-meaningless and desire for minimum conflict and otherness in her midst, the woman changes the girl’s beautiful Sami name to a Danish one. She also changes the name of the Vietnamese orphan who came to live with her when Vietnamese boat refugees came to Denmark in numbers so large that authorities had to billet them with private individuals.

Kirsten’s plan to reconnect with her Sami family also does not come in a flash and when she finally visits her mother in Northern Norway, her sense of belonging to the country and community in which she was born is blurred by years of absence, growing up in a different country, community and culture.  Even the belief system for keeping evil away that she learnt from her grandma; the silver, the chants in an old Finnish language, Kvensk, the warning to never look at the northern light; are foreign to the Sami community to which she returns.

I have always wondered how people in the arctic circle managed to survive and have children. The exhibition Fur - life or death? at the National Museum gave me some insight. Photo: Mick 2015.

I have always wondered how people in the arctic circle managed to survive and raise children. The exhibition Fur – life or death? at the National Museum gave me some insight. Photo: Mick 2015.

Just before she leaves with her father for Denmark, young Risten commences a massive project to draw a fantastic tree covering numerous taped together pieces of A4 paper. She wants to draw the roots, the crown, the branches. The roots of this tree – of this girl – are clearly deeply buried in the northern country near the arctic circle. When she returns she probes to discover just how deeply her roots are buried – they are so well covered up by an alternative truth that they are nearly impossible to discover.

This is a touching and moving story, well written and beautifully told. Being out of place in a well-meaning, but much misguided ‘civilisation’ parallels stories of first nations people across the world. And I am happy to say, it is a far cry from my own experience: my struggle for belonging are nothing on a scared little girl far away from home, clutching her grandma’s silver ring and chanting to keep evil spirits at bay and holding tight to cultural truths that no-one surrounding her has any possibility of understanding.

My story has none of that drama at all. I deeply respect the genuine struggle of all people who are displaced, especially to those who did not – and cannot – themselves chose to be where they are.

Learning from the masters

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing - I don't think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing – I don’t think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

As I settle into my reverse expat experience of my home country here in Copenhagen, I picked up Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), written about his time as a young, poor writer in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son.

I have never read a word of Hemingway before and my knowledge of him was quite vague and second hand. But he kept cropping up as someone to read for an example of simple language and so I plunged in. I was not disappointed.

It is an easy read, though sometimes the narrative is fractured, as memoirs can be. From time to time the short book reads like elaborate name dropping. Gertrude Stein here, James Joyce there, a bit of Picasso and a dim view of Scott Fitzgerald, the person, and his mad wife Zelda. He names streets, cafés and hotels and I want to go to Paris to experience the artist community he is part of. This was a time, Hemingway claims, when there was no official uniform for the artist uniform and one could wear what one pleased, when sitting in cafés all day long, bent over a notebook with a pen, nursing a café creme while the waiters swept and cleaned up.

In this novel the gems about establishing a writing practice may be mere wall paper to most readers. But these were the bits that I found most interesting. Hemingway realises that his obsession with winning at the races interferes with his writing practice because to earn a living that way one must know much more about horses and acquiring that knowledge takes time away from creating good writing from which to earn a living. Perhaps my equivalent is the temptation to find a ‘real job’ to supplement our savings (and to be easily able to explain what I do with my days), but this too would take time away from writing. I repeat to myself: I am a writer.

Hemingway’s clearest writing advice is to work until something has been written and stop only when you know what is going to happen next. If stuck, he would remember:
Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. (p12)

By truest sentence he meant a sentence that he knew or had seen or heard someone say – a simple, declaratory sentence. He called elaborate writing scrollwork or ornament that could be discarded.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

At some point Hemingway’s writing practice involved leaving the flat to go to the local café to write, hoping that he would not meet anyone to disturb his flow. His wife would also go out and leave their young son in his crib with the cat, F Pussy. While this would have social workers well concerned in this century, it seemed accepted practice then. Until the flat got too cold for the baby to stay in during winter. Then the family went skiing in the Alps.

Hemingway also advises to stop working and stop thinking about the work between working, so as to let the subconscious work on it. He would then be able to listen to the conversation of other people and to notice things. Using his writerly sense.

For someone so poor, Hemingway consumed an inordinate amount of coffee, meals and wine in the cafés of Paris. But maybe those cafés were affordable and had a different business model to cafés in Copenhagen nearly 100 years later. Daily coffee and lunching in the plentiful cafés in my local neighbourhood would soon deplete our savings. But also, Copenhagen coffee is not that good: I have come to realise how spoilt for good coffee we are in Brisbane. Rather than the smooth drop with well frothed milk and a touch of real chocolate sprinkles that I know from my favourite Brisbane coffee joint, John Mills Himself, a Copenhagen cappuccino is a crass affair with none of the sweetness. And expensive too – about twice the price I pay in Brisbane.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

In my attempts to write, I have tried to establish a writing practice. Sometimes, I leave the flat to write, not because the flat is cold, but because I need to get out. I might sit in the foyer of the Black Diamond, the Royal Library building on the canal front, where I listen to the conversations of students on progress of their thesis, the hearing of their disputation or their new love. If there are other writers and artists around, they are not wearing a recognisable artist uniform.

I also leave the work to do other stuff – my husband and I visit galleries and museums and we walk the streets of Copenhagen, noticing architecture, nature, people and graffiti. With my writerly sense.

But I need more discipline to write enough every day. Or I feel as useless as Hemingway did on an escapade with Scott Fitzgerald – a day wasted not writing.

Memories and literature

The human story of the horror of war: Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand. The four men are suffering from beri beri that also afflicted the prisoners of war in Richard Flanagan's The Road to the Deep North. Photo: unknown, 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:POWs_Burma_Thai_RR.jpg

The human story of the horror of war: Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand. The four men are suffering from beri beri that also afflicted the prisoners of war in Richard Flanagan’s The Road to the Deep North. Photo: unknown, 1943. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:POWs_Burma_Thai_RR.jpg

Over the past two weeks I have read two books in two very different ways.

Firstly, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a birthday present to my husband late last year. He took it on the trip to read, but last week it was me who picked up the paperback to read the Australian Man Booker Prize winner from last year.

The story is about Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and set to work on the Emperor’s railway in Thailand. Told in five parts, we follow the main character, Dorrigo Evans, from earliest childhood memory to death. From meeting Amy, the love of his life, over his life as an army surgeon in charge of the Australian POWs in the Japanese camp on the Thai-Burma railway, to his loveless post-war marriage, fame and death. The story is captivating and excellent.

Getting started was hard going and to me the first part of the book did not begin to make sense until I finished it and turned it over to reread those first 18 short chapters. Without understanding the significance of the many characters introduced, this first part was confusing with its jumps in time. I very nearly gave up on the book before finishing those first 59 pages. But then in the second part, the story took off and carried me through the next 400 pages to the end, through the sea of love, lust and longing, through the mud, unspeakable horror and desparation of the war camp, to the aftermath for both survivors and captors and the profound impact on the lives of all involved.

Richard Flanagan: The Road to the Deep North, 2013. Photo: Lone

Richard Flanagan: The Road to the Deep North, 2013. Photo: Lone

I am glad I persevered. The book is about the horrors of war, but is mostly about humanity and human relationships. It leaves me with the sense that humanity will prevail and that what matters is how we relate to each other irrespective of all of the circumstances and horrors that are around us.

Among all the rotting skin and seeping ulcers, crude amputations, bodies so skinny anuses stick out, mud and shit, it was Dorrigo’s initial adamant denial that memories matter that horrified me the most. Thus he threw Rabbit Hendrick’s sketchbook on the inferno that was his burial. Thankfully Dorrigo later picks up the book, partly damaged from the fire, but sufficiently whole to keep and be published post war. Memories do matter. And as the people who have the memories first hand die we risk the stories, their truth, will never be remembered. Flanagan dedicated the novel to his father, a POW on the death railway, who died the day the novel was finished.

Though personally I have no connection with the Australian war experience in Asia, it is clear to me that this is an important Australian story and a book worth spending time with to make human sense of the history books’ treatment of these events.

The second book was a Danish audio book. Jens Vilstrup’s Opland is a story about a doctor living in Copenhagen returning to his unnamed home town in Jutland when his father dies. Socially mobile against all odds, the doctor finds his home town a desolate place of alcoholism, violence and child abuse and memories of his childhood intermingle with surreal events leading up to his father’s funeral. He can only hardly connect with the friends he used to have. He was the one who left, while they were stuck.

The experience of an audio novel is entirely different from holding the novel and reading it – it all happens in the head and there is little tactile experience. This book is read by Jesper Vilsom, whose accent is from too far south in Jutland to confuse the story’s location until references to surrounding towns and roads narrows it down to the local area of where my father grew up, not far from my own childhood home in Mid-Jutland.

The author also jumps back and forth in time. In the hard copy, childhood memories are marked by italics, but in the audio version there is no marker. I did not mind this – there seemed to be sufficient segway back and forth for it to make sense.

The setting of Jens Vilstrup's Opland is this - flat and bleak reclaimed heath. Photo: Lone 2013.

The setting of Jens Vilstrup’s Opland is this – flat and bleak reclaimed heath. Photo: Lone 2013.

The story is based on the Author’s childhood memories – he is three years older than I am but some seem too violent and too plentifully serious to be true. While I cannot recognise the violence or desolateness, some cultural references ring true from my own childhood: John Mogensen, Sex Pistols and shaggy carpets. I also recognise the drunkenness, the youth criminality and the strange drug-induced sensiblity of people I knew in Herning when my then boyfriend was at home in those circles.

Vilstrup’s writing leaves me with the smell of musty, too-warm living rooms of older people and the deafening sound of squealing pigs in my grandfather’s stable just before feeding time. I can see the flatlands of the reclaimed heath of Jutland that I have passed through so many times to go back to Herning on the train.

Like Vilstrup I also left my childhood town to study. I later left the country for adventure and then emigrated entirely. Unlike Vilstrup when I come back, as I have now, I feel so at home in Denmark. My family and old friends embrace me and are so happy we can spend time together.

While the Danish book was of more personal relevance to me – and much easier to read than the Australian one – it certainly is not Man Booker Prize material. However, both books explore the role and lifelong impact of violence, one in a significant historical setting, the other in a more personal setting, unfamiliar and insignificant to those who have not experienced it.