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book review:

Copenhagen

The most striking aspect of Katrine Guld­ager’s stick-thin Copenhagen is its econo­my of language–its third-person narrator speaking simply and without ornament, committed as much to brevity as to a constrained vocabulary. This is minimal-ism for the purist–blunt indications of emotion; the banal, routine interactions of unexceptional individuals. In many in­stances, characters and places seem barely there, boiled down to their essential out­ward actions, or left uncompromisingly mysterious. As a work of realism, P.K. Brask’s English translation of Guldager’s Danish text certainly succeeds at evoking the small despairs of urban living–a kind of everyday, oblique melancholy, where aspirations are never that high, love and adultery both fumbling affairs, and cru­elty all too casual. Guldager rarely allows her characters a sense of greater aware­ness, and doesn’t go anywhere near the physical resonance of an epiphany. This can work to devastating effect, as in the pitch-perfect second story, “Break-in” (a man discovers his mother, murdered in her bed, with her jaw missing …). But it can also generate its own host of po­tential problems–and principally, that of boredom. Sometimes all that banality manages to swallow or preclude beauty (or ugliness, for that matter). Sometimes the sudden, seemingly arbitrary endings call for some further justification. Some­times I just wanted to be moved or chal­lenged, or to feel as if I should re-read or hover over a passage; that I shouldn’t be anticipating the next story or asking my­self, “so what?” That being said, Copen­hagen is still highly commendable for its depiction of place. Copenhagen-as-city is as much a character as the men and women who populate it–and perhaps more so, considering their occasional in­terchangeability. Many of these 11stories take their names from physical locations, and often the third-person narrator leaps across the map, effortlessly juggling nu­merous radically different personalities. The streets, the subways, and the trams of the city all radiate that aforementioned mood of underwhelming defeat, and for that, Copenhagen can be seen as a kind of novella, stunning in its cohesion, arguing the age-old notion that place and setting largely determine who and what we are. (Spencer Gordon)

by Katrine Marie Guldager, translated from the Danish by P.K. Brask $20, 82 pgs., Book Thug 53 Ardagh St., To­ronto, ON, M6S 1Y4, bookthug.ca

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