Doghead, by Morten Ramsland

Doghead (Danish title Hundehoved)is a somewhat quirky novel. It has received rave reviews in Europe – and has won the Danish Best Novel and Best Author awards, Doghead, by Morten Ramsland as well as Book of the Year, the Reader's Prize and the 2005 Golden Laurel Prize. Not bad!

Strange, yet appealing, Doghead follows three generations of a dysfunctional, odd Scandinavian family. Perhaps all lives are odd at close enough range, especially when you search for the strange stories and the unlikely event? I don’t really know the answer to that – but I do know that the three generations of this particular family has oddities for many, many normal families. Rather than a family saga, Doghead is a collection of family stories, told more or less chronologically.

Askild, the alcoholic grandfather who ran scams in and survived a Nazi concentration camp is the pater familias. Also, there is Jug Ears, the father in the family. He was forced to wear an armor-plated corset as a youngster. His mother, in consultation with a doctor, decided that was the best way to prevent him from touching his ears. As well, there is the often-present narrator Asger. As a child he derived his satisfaction from wrestling his obese, mentally somewhat challenged aunt.

These are some of the main characters. But the stories are even wilder than the characters. Admittedly, there is some daily, average, sane life there and there, but not so much. Perhaps even so little that as a reader you wish for a little more of it – to get a grip, to grasp the picture, to give perspective to the story.

The story starts out in Norway after the Second World War. The grandfather, Askild, has return from the camp in Germany and is hailed as a hero for striking a German soldier over the head with a stick, even though he did it to steal, not as an act of courageous resistance. But the public created the heroes they needed, and Askild was glorified as “the Carpenter”. But in the long, run of course, being worshipped as a hero for such a deed cannot lead to anything good. And indeed, in Doghead the skeletons soon start to clatter out of the closets, one after another.

Many have noted that there is a little of John Irving is Ramland’s writing. I think that is correct. Fur sure, he holds taboos in disregard and loves salty humor just like Irving. And the tale is, in many ways, quite as wild as some of the wilder by Irving. And the characters are odd too, like the child with ears that are so excessive that other children fill them with mud and tiny snails. Even so Doghead is not “The World According to Garp,” say, or “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” As opposed to Irving’s characters, who often live charmed lives, the Eriksson’s inhabit a world that is rather shocking and where even childhoods are brutal. There is little warmth and trust, and little reason to trust – instead there is cruelty, evil, adultery, duplicity and violence.

Doghead is a strange book. A dark book. I am not sure I liked it. But I will remember it. And I do think it is well worth reading.

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