Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman - Niklas Natt och Dag

An extraordinary achievement, fully deserving all the hype it has received, The Wolf and the Watchman is certainly the historical novel of the year, possibly the best since The Name of the Rose, back in the Eighties.

The story itself is startlingly original. In Stockholm, in 1793, the one-armed watchman Mickel Cardell pulls a dead man from the water. I was originally going to say body but that is somewhat of an overstatement in the case of this man. His arms, legs, eyes, tongue and teeth have all been removed, in stages, before death. The under-pressure police chief summons his friend and sometime investigator Cecil Winge. Winge has solved potentially unsolvable cases before, and if he doesn't succeed this time, he has nothing to lose, given that he has already outlived expert estimates of death from consumption.

Cardell and Winge join forces, the former providing the physicality to the latter's brains. Of course they eventually find out the dead man's identity and who killed him, but not before the author has opened up the story in an amazingly bold way.

The story starts in Autumn 1793 but then goes backwards in time, first to the summer. This is the story of the teenaged surgeon's assistant Johan Kristofer Blix, who we are meant to assume is the mutilated victim. Blix falls foul of the wastrel elite and builds a substantial debt which is then sold on to a nobleman who carries Blix off to his remote castle. Blix ultimately escapes and becomes part of the next section which begins in the spring of 1793.

This is the story of Anna Stina, an even younger teenager who is taken into 'care' by the authorities when her mother dies. The house of correction is really a torture chamber. Girls are whipped to death for the amusement of their guards. Anna escapes and takes on the role of one of the girls who died, the daughter of an innkeeper. She is, however, already pregnant by the guard who helped her escape. It is then she meets Blix, who redeems his sins by doing her a favour. After Blix is lost Anna plans to change her appearance with acid. At this point the story catches up with itself and we are back on the edge of winter.

The story is incredibly dark. Stockholm is corrupt, debased, and stinks to high heaven. The author is himself a member of one of Sweden's oldest families, so we must assume he has access to all the insider knowledge.

Hard to believe, but The Wolf and the Watchman is a debut novel. And what a debut it is. Again, I can only compare it with the arrival in fiction of Umberto Eco.

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