The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, by Roy Jacobsen

by Peter

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 The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, by Roy Jacobsen 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 did 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 is a gifted writer, stylish, laconic and imaginative. . . a powerful and well-written account of an unfamiliar episode in the Second World War.’ — (TLS )

‘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

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