Written by Lars Saabye Christensen
Publisher: Cappelen Damm
Genre: Contemporary, Norwegian
Original Language: Norwegian
Read from 2021-03-30 to 2021-04-11
Read in Norwegian
Review: When En tilfeldig nordmann was released I was nervous. The headlines I read about it seemed to suggest that this was the author rallying behind the battle against cancel culture, viciously attacking political correctness, etc. etc. I was delighted to find that it wasn’t.
As much as I can imagine people lining up, and looking forward, to both chastising and praising this book for being Lars Saabye Christensen making a vicious statement about cancel culture, En tilfeldig nordmann is not that. I accept that this book can be read in several ways, and some people might see it as either an attack on or an affirmation of this and that. Sure, the book is an overt commentary on the concept of so-called cancel culture, but it constructs situations which are absurd enough that, for me, the underlying message never goes beyond “if this were the world we lived in, then we would have to question how we ended up here.” Given the absurdity of the book as a whole, it reads as a gentle dystopic world that the author fears that we’ll end up in, rather than a commentary on where we’re at today.
Personally, I come from a position of thinking that complaints about cancel culture having gone too far in a world where the public discourse is saturated by complaints about cancel culture having gone too far is an absurd contradiction. I think there is a point at which healthy debate may be stifled, but I don’t think that’s where we’re at. I think that what is currently being labelled as “cancel culture” is an increase in people speaking out against things they don’t think are OK, coming to a head with people who have never had to face the reality that people don’t think what they are saying is OK. I’m relatively certain that many, and probably Lars Saabye Christensen, would disagree with my view on this, but in “En tilfeldig nordmann” he avoids making direct assertions about what the world is currently like, instead constructing a thought experiment (admittedly with many tie-ins to reality) in which he explores and explains some concerns about what could happen if all dissenting voices are stifled. The result is a book that can be interesting and enjoyable to everyone, regardless of their views, and I did enjoy it.
Admittedly, reading this book was hard work. The lightly satirical language is easily approachable, but once I started trying to figure out what was referencing what, and where the metaphors began and ended, and what the various parts of the story was supposed to be telling me, reading the book became exhausting. I hope I picked up the most important parts of what I was supposed to be pick up, but I’m sure there are several things that went over my head. In short, the story is about a guy named Gordon Mo who, after a lifetime of being an invisible, unremarkable, reliable cog in the bureaucratic civil service, finally commits a public display of political incorrectness. This is far from the first time he has boiled over like this, but it’s the first time it’s happened in public – a fact that changes how Gordon Mo is perceived, and, in many ways, who he actually is. The rest of the book sets out to simultaneously figure out why it happened, what is wrong with Gordon, and how it can be treated.
The most uncomfortable thing in the book, for me, was the points made about the danger of conflating morals and politics, and how doing this can easily serve to stifle and polarize debates that might be healthy. I’m as guilty as I’m sure anyone is of seeing some political decisions (including a very specific one which is cited in the book) as being a matter of morals rather than a matter of politics. I still believe that I am right, but is there really any way that I could have a proper discussion with people who disagree, without implicitly assuming moral superiority? I hope so, but perhaps not.
I see this as being a warning shot from Lars Saabye Christensen about where he believes the world is heading. I’m more optimistic than him: I don’t think stifling of debate is, or will become, a real problem. Despite that, En tilfeldig nordmann is a book that’s worth reading, and I credit Lars Saabye Christensen of writing a book which discusses a polarizing subject, on which he probably has strong opinions, relatively openly, rather than a book designed to aggressively tell a large number of readers that they were wrong. In that sense, this book practises what it preaches.