The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, by Roy Jacobsen
This short, quiet, beautiful and under-stated book by Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen, originally entitled “Hoggerne”, is one of the eight books shortlisted for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Roy Jacobsen has written 19 books so far, but The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles is only the second one to be translated into English.
The book is based on a true story from neighboring Finland in 1939. It takes place during the Winter War, when fewer than 2,000 Finns defeated 50,000 Russians. As the Russians invade, the towns-people in Suomussalmi are urged to burn down their own houses to prevent the enemy from occupying them in the bitter winter cold.
Most of them follow this order. But one man does not. He is Timo Vatanen, ‘the Idiot’, a woodcutter who refuses to leave the small town where he was born: he can't imagine living anywhere else. Timo is sworn at by the others: the Russians kill everyone, he is told. But he doesn't listen, and manages to save a couple of homes, tending them even when the Russians arrive.
This story, then, is a story about the lives of ordinary people dragged into wars they do not initiate or know anything about. Timo is somewhat slow in his thinking, and in this book he becomes a reluctant hero - a resister who resists by simply slowly and surely surviving. Timo manages to provide homes and food for the forced labor the Russians have brought with them. His little kingdom in the forest and snow becomes a haven for others in a difficult time. And, as Timo says: “A human life isn’t worth much, but one tends to cling to it when one has it” (translated from Norwegian, my translation).
Roy Jacobsen is one of the most celebrated and influential contemporary writers in Norway. Among other awards, Roy Jacobsen has won the Bookseller's Prize, the Critic's Prize and in 2006, the Gyldendal Prize for The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. Two of his novels have been nominated for the Nordic Council's Literature Prize: The Conquerors in 1991 and Frost in 2003. His writing style is quiet, uses symbolic connotations, is under-stated and tightly written, yet still warm and poetic, and, as well, full of humor. He is an extremely talented storyteller. His little tale of the reluctant hero Timo, set in the cold and dense forest, is full of suffering, yet very heartwarming.
A little gem of a novel!
Praise for The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles:
‘A compact and compelling novel by an iconic Norwegian writer…[and] thanks to Don Bartlett and Don Shaw’s crisp translation, we see it obliquely’ -- (Boyd Tonkin, Independent )
'A strange, impressively understated novel . . . a daunting, traditional narrative which asserts itself from page one and, like the winter cold, refuses to relax its hold.' -- (Irish Times )
‘Jacobsen excels in his portrait of what it means to be an outsider’ -- (Anita Sethi, Independent )
'Jacobsen is a gifted writer, stylish, laconic and imaginative. . . a powerful and well-written account of an unfamiliar episode in the Second World War.' -- (TLS )
'An inventive wordsmith and a great storyteller, [Jacobsen] never sacrifices substance for style. His research is meticulous; he knows when to hold back and let the unspoken speak for itself, the hallmark of an author so familiar with his subject that he knows precisely where to let the reader fill in the gaps. .. The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles is a gem of a novel. -- (Independent )
'I bought this book on a whim as part of a three-for-two offer. I read it all on one cold and rainy day as I travelled around London, and I was mesmerized by it. It is exquisitely written and translated, a small and close-focus story, and rather like a strange and mysterious dream. I can't recommend it highly enough for an unusual and fascinating short read.' -- FIONA STOW "corribheights" (London, UK) at amazon.com
- Fangeliv - short stories, (1982)
- Hjertetrøbbel - novel, (1984)
- Tommy - novel, (1985)
- Det nye vannet - novel (1987)
- Virgo - novel, (1988)
- Det kan komme noen - short stories, (1989)
- Ursula - childrens bok, (1990)
- Seierherrene - novel, (1991)
- Fata Morgana - novel, (1992)
- Den høyre armen - short stories, (1994)
- Trygve Bratteli. En fortelling - biography , (1995)
- Ismael - novel, (1998)
- Grenser - novel, (1999)
- Fugler og soldater - short stories, (2001)
- Det nye vinduet - short stories, (2002)
- Frost - novel, (2003)
- Hoggerne - novel,(2005) The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles
- Marions slør - novel, (2007)
- Vidunderbarn - novel (2009)
- Anger - novel (2011)
Tarjei Vesaas' Debutant Prize 1982
The Cappelen Prize 1997
The Critics' Prize 1989
The Booksellers' Prize 1991, Seierherrene (The Conquerors)
The Ivar-Lo Prize 1994
The Municipality of Oslo's Artist's Prize 1994
The Gyldendal Reward 2006, Hoggerne (The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles)
Roy Jacobsen grew up in a suburb of Oslo. He has held a number of occupations. Since 1990 he has been a full-time author.
Roy Jacobsen has developed into an original, intense and analytical author with a special interest in the underlying psychological interplay in human relationships.
During the years 1979 - 1986 he lived at his mother's homestead at Solfjellsjøen in the municipality Dønna in the Northern Norwegian county Nordland, and both the background of is mother as well as his own upbringing in Groruddalen were central themes of his breakthrough novel Seierherrene (1991). This novel described "the great class journey" – the upward motion through social strata experienced by large segments of the Norwegian population during a few generations in the 20th century.
In 1999 Grenser (Boundaries) was published. The novel is at the same time a moving epic tale of love and fatherly dedication about responsibility, and an exploration of the conditions of national and private identity.
He wrote the great epic novel Frost (Frost) in 2003. This is the fantastic saga of Gest the Icelander, born in 993 A.D., who is outlawed only 13 years old for slaying one of Iceland's most powerful kings to avenge his father's murder. Gest escapes from Iceland and travels to Norway, where he ends up drawn into the centre of political events. He is a visionary and a highly intelligent, manipulating dreamer. His various qualities make him one of Eirik Jarl's closest advisors, and he eventually takes part in the conquest of England in 1016. Frost was nominated to the Nordic Council's Literary Prize.