No sugarcoating in Greenland

Feb 13, 2010 by

Kim Leine’s highly acclaimed and powerful debut “Kalak” from 2007 was written from a strong urge for penance.  “It was one of those stories that just needed telling”, he says. The book was written in the traditional style of a novel, but is categorised as a remembrance novel as it is actually a biography. Point in fact, the main character has the author’s real name in the story.

Born in Norway into a religious family, Kim learns from a very early age to fear God. So five years later, when his father fled a small isolated community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in search of self-realization in Copenhagen, Kim is left in a suffocating world of angst with his mother. At the age of 16 he runs away from home on his own quest for independence, hoping to escape an ever watching and punitive God.

Being a Jehovah’s Witness, he knows he is an outcast now. Therefore, looking for guidance, he takes refuge with his father. But he arrives in Denmark only to find that his father is living in a gay relationship and is very dismissive of any emotional needs he might have. With a budding sexuality and a deep longing for acknowledgement, Kim is manipulated and beguiled to have sex with his father.

Kim gets entangled in a world of abuse, manipulation and betrayal. Everything becomes a disguise of what really is. Abuse is disguised as fatherly love, intimidation as guidance, no boundaries as cool intellectual freedom. Being the young son and therefore inferior, Kim learns to pretend and put on a mask to hide his shame, anger and growing repugnance of his father. At school he becomes the strange and clever boy with an interesting father. At home he is the submissive son and the captive audience to his father’s display of superiority in music and literature. But slowly his world opens up and grows:

When I arrived in the city a lifetime ago, it was foreign and safe. Now it was confidential and threatening. Back then, I could not get lost as I was already lost.  Now I have a starting point and a point can easily get dissolved and vanish.  I could just keep on walking, I thought. But I knew it is impossible. You cannot disappear twice in one summer.

I move outwards in half circles. One day I turn left, the next right, I cross boundaries and return only to take off again and move further away from my starting point. I do not disappear. I am building a city in my head, my own Copenhagen, a city which has never existed before. The streets do not move anymore. Arches, walls, staircases stay in the same place. Because I decide it. I construct whole quarters in one day, erect churches and hotel buildings, move a point a couple of hundred meters closer to the centre, tear down a castle and rebuild it in a more suitable place, plant a park. The city grows. I walk and walk.

Pacing the streets and getting an education as a nurse helps Kim to detach himself from his father and begin a life on his own. He moves out and eventually makes friends. After a while he even meets a woman with whom he feels safe and he starts a family. But when the chance of getting far away arrives, Kim takes employment in Greenland without hesitation. Once again he becomes a refugee, this time with his family.

In Greenland, Kim hopes to start anew without all the clutter from Denmark. But emotional baggage has a way of clinging on to you, no matter how far you run. At home he makes a safe haven for himself in a clean little room, where he can escape from the world and read, write and listen to his own choice of music in peace. Each day he eats their food and makes it a virtue to learn a new word in Greenlandic. By all means he does not want to act like the post colonial Danes, who tend to think they are there to educate and save the inhabitants from themselves.

At first, Kim’s almost frantic attempts to integrate into Greenland’s society is not a labour of a love for the people or the country. It’s born out of a desire to create a new identity and build a sense of belonging. He desperately needs to be something else, something other than victim of incest. He needs to feel something more than a fear of Jehovah.

Therefore, his efforts to integrate into society and create a new identity replace all the pain and angst he carries inside. This works – for a while. What he is not aware of is that, without getting psychological help, he is bound to repeat the behaviour pattern of his father unconsciously and become an abuser himself. So Kim becomes an abuser of people, food, alcohol, drugs and sex.

When he starts to drink and have uninhibited sex with different Greenlandic women, he makes no secret of it to his wife. Somehow there is another side to the coin and a reward:

We exchange afflictions and successes all night long, lying skin to skin. The bed is the domain of painful confessions, the night is a good listener. I am confessor and penitent. I give absolution and receive the blessing. Some of the girls are very young, others are ten years older than me. But in bed age is an illusion, other things are more important.

In these dark apartments late at night, I acquire more knowledge of the Greenlandic mentality, language and customs than any book in the wide world could have given me. But another thing which these women give me, is a much greater gift. They convince me that I am physically attractive to other people than my father.

But later, Kim becomes aware of the grim fact that he has come to resemble his father. He slowly understands that he has looked upon the Greenlanders just as the old colonists would, with prejudice and lack of knowledge. He had tried to use those women to heal his own wounds, disregarding both their needs and the pain he brought onto his own family.

While living in Greenland, Kim still stays in touch with his father and visits him on his summer trips to Denmark. At no point does he dare speak of the abuse but he watches his father closely. His father has replaced Kim with a new group of people he can dominate; vulnerable souls who also have left the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Slowly, the psychology of his father’s actions, his need for other people to depend on him and follow his rules, surfaces and becomes understandable to Kim. Yet, it has took him 15 years to actually feel anger and let his father finally fall from grace. Finally he can understand his father and see him and his behaviour for what it really is. He sees what it does to other people, including Kim himself.

In Greenland there is no right to have ownership of land, and therefore the people are depended solely upon the outcome of their catch or their wages. This breeds a culture with no roots. The meaning of owning a home, the saying “a man’s home is his castle” certainly do not exist there. The dependency on what nature brings for food and the unstable force of nature means that you can be rich one season, only to be thrown out of your home and into the streets the next. Therefore you learn to survive without being attached to material things. You learn to live in the moment, from hand to mouth. A way of life which resonates with Kim since he no longer has any roots. He has begun to give in to his impulses of wanting a painless life by taking drugs.

Somehow Kim has thought of Greenland as a place which could cure his wounds and a place where he could seek refuge from the futility of his past. A place where he could help save and give aid to the atavistic inhabitants.

But a real meeting between Kim and the Greenlanders could not take place before he understood the pathology in his relationships and the way he viewed other people. Through his work as a nurse, he began to learn about the people and the conditions they live under. Slowly Kim becomes more capable of meeting them on equal terms.

Unfortunately, at that point, Kim had become addicted to drugs stolen at the hospital. When one of his co-workers discovers him taking drugs, he is reported and sent to a psychiatric ward in Denmark.

At the hospital,  being clear in his mind, Kim learns what the doctors think healing is. To them, being cured means being able to fit in, to obey the rules of behaviour in society and suppress your real feelings. It has nothing to do with dealing with your demons and solving your problems. In Greenland people show their pain and feelings, no matter how ugly the feelings are. The contrast between the way you are expected to act in the Danish society and the more authentic way of life Greenland, makes Kim realises he needs to go back to Greenland. He suddenly understands that, what he first felt was a disgrace, the Greenlanders displaying their failure and sorrow openly, he now realizes has a hidden gift and a healing quality.

The novel has many themes, such as rebelling against your family and the problems of post colonial workers; but the overall theme is the pathology of abuse and the long road to healing. What makes this novel stands out is that Kim does not rail off in self-pity. He hurt a lot of people by his behaviour, but at the time he simply did not know better. Even so, it was still his doing. So, although he is a victim and has been taught how to become an abuser by his father, Kim takes it upon himself, to face his demons and take responsibility for his actions. This level of awareness comes across clearly in his language. The voice of Kim is not the voice of a victim seeking attention. The motive is not a sentimental one. He simply tells people what happened, nothing more nothing less. Therefore you feel sympathy and admiration for his character and for Kim Leine’s ability to write about such painful experiences in a very personal and original language.

In 2008, Kim Leine published a new novel called “Valdemarsdag”. This time, the main character is his grandfather, whom he discovered was a murderer. The novel revolves around the day of the murder in 1938. The focus is how the murder took place and what drives a man to kill. In research for this book, Kim has read all the police files including eye witness testimonies and has even seen the photos from the crime scene and the actual weapon which was used.

Last fall,  Leine returned to Greenland in his latest book “Tunu” but now as a male character called Jesper who works as a nurse in small village. Jesper is not Leine’s alter ego, nor is the novel a biography. The story is based on the knowledge of Leine’s time in Greenland and you get to know what the many fates of the Greenlanders could look like and how a post colonial worker could integrate into the community.

Leine received many letters after writing his first book that confirmed it was important for him to write his biography, not only as a therapeutic tool on his own path, but also to share it with other people. Having emptied himself of his life story and written the novel in only three months, Leine was afraid that he had thwarted his chances of becoming a real author. But fortunately there was more to tell, more to share, so we get to enjoy more of his intense stories and excellent writing.

At the moment Kim Leine’s books are available in Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Publishers in Germany are also starting to show interest in this great author.

Lone Christensen

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Episode 62: JD Salinger’s dead? Again?

Feb 12, 2010 by

Bookbabble Episode 62: JD Salinger’s dead? Again?
Recorded 31 Jan 2010
Babblers: Lone, Marcel


Marcel and Lone get together for a duet, where they discuss the process of writing reviews.   As reviewers themselves, they compare notes on how reviews are done, the research put in, and influences.  Also discussed are JD Salinger, on his recent passing, and one of Lone’s true loves: Virginia Woolf.

Show Length: 52:36 mins


Download the show here.

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Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice Reviewed

Aug 6, 2009 by

The new book from the elusive but wildly popular (well, if you swim in the literary circles) Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice, has been out for 2 days (already!).  The web isn’t awash with reviews of the book, as far as I know, but one of the places that does have one up is on Slate. 

Check it out here.

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Bookbabble Episode 31: Do Critics and Reviews Influence Our Reading

Apr 11, 2009 by

Bookbabble Episode 31: Do Critics and Reviews Influence Our Reading
Recorded 11 April 2009
Babblers: Bjorn, Gem, Donny


The babblers talk about reviews, regardless of whether they are from well-known, highly regarded professional critics or your average blogger.  What is the difference between the two, and how either affects our reading selection.

Oh, and Gem didn’t like Forgetting Sarah Marshall.


Show Length: 59:25 mins

Authors mentioned:






Download the show here.

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