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Review of To Mervas from Brian Maxwell in North Dakota Quarterly

Elisabeth Rynell’s newest book was a finalist for the August Strindberg Prize and is her first novel to appear in English. Translated from the Swedish by Victoria Häggblom, To Mervas follows a pair of previous prose works–A Tale of Loka and Hohaj–as well as the poetry volumes Night Conversations, Sorrow Winged Angels, and Desert Wanderer.

To Mervas concerns itself with Marta, a middle-aged woman living alone in the city who is as far-removed from her family and friends as she is from her own crippling past. The book opens with Marta receiving word from Kosti, her long-lost lover, and the message is almost as mysterious as it is brief. Stirred by his sudden interruption, Marta decides to journey to Mervas in search of Kosti, but first she must overcome a measure of stasis in order to come to terms with the more horrific aspects of her personal history. Unfortunately for Marta, she is not merely a victim: she has acted at least as much as she has been acted upon, though what might be bad news for her is a boon for the psychology of her character. This allows Rynell to skirt the specter of melodrama as her narrative technique and use of language serve to create a timeless world that epitomizes the mystery inherent in good storytelling.

Considering her lyrical prowess, it’s fitting that Rynell introduces To Mervas with an eloquent epigram in three stanzas. “Life must be a story,” she begins, “or else it will crush you.” And though such a sweeping declaration could easily be misconstrued by a weary reading public, these opening sentiments shine brightly because of the graceful nature of the tale that follows. At least as significant, however, is the way the epigram springs to life in the following stanza and provides an adequate denouement in the third: “I’ve been thinking that just like a fire, a story too has its place, its hearth. From there it rises and burns. Devours its tale.” The stanzas perhaps work best as a brief epilogue, since their success hinges on the elliptical nature of the observations. But the lines also foreshadow an interesting technical decision as author and character will at times crowd the narrative for control over the tale.

The truth is that the words from the epigrams seem to originate in Marta since her search for identity directs the course of the plot–and the inclusion of a speaker in stanza two makes its own rhetorical case. But more than this, the language here is Marta’s language, just as the novel represents Marta’s story. Though the action concerns a fairly straightforward journey, the structure is not simplistic; Rynell switches between an epistolary first-person point of view–in the form of Marta’s diary–and a limited third-person that allows her to comment from beyond the margins. A series of flashbacks allows readers to witness Marta’s tortured childhood, concentrating chiefly on an abusive father who forces himself upon her mother in full view of his children. When Marta herself becomes a parent after a one-night stand, Rynell does not shy away from exploring Marta’s flaws, a strategy that reminds us that fictional lives are not always meant to brighten the corners of every room. Marta leaves for Mervas in a rickety, recently purchased automobile, an act that registers enormously as she must first give up her flat and reflect on the death of her severely handicapped son. Though his presence defined Marta as a sort of modern-day Hester Prynne, his death destroys her, and the fact that she is responsible creates an unflattering parental parallel. Her memories are presented in detail but without much commentary or judgment, and this analytical approach is as startling as it is lucid: Marta recounts her life with the same unwavering commitment to penance that one might find in a lesser saint–but one, like Augustine, that best understands sin from experience.

Such talk of course returns us to the danger of melodrama, and since Marta does in fact achieve a measure of success in her battle with the past, it’s significant that Rynell keeps her protagonist from giving over to histrionics. Marta sees the diary as a process of “assembling, comparing, sorting, and memorizing” her thoughts, as she and Kosti worked previously on archaeological excavations; but the metaphor here needs to be more than an act of thematic convenience, and this is where Rynell’s innovative gambles pay off.

The shift in point of view doesn’t disrupt continuity nearly as much as it should. The novel is divided into four sections which are split equally between the first-person diary entries and the limited third-person. Stylistically, the prose doesn’t change much when we leave Marta’s perspective, as Rynell continues to write in the same odd, despairing, and unhappily comic manner that she uses for Marta’s interior accounts. Marta sees things plainly, if not simply; she exhibits the artifacts of her past as if she is curator of a museum, thus avoiding the confessional tendencies common to the epistolary form. Instead, the prose is interesting if not exactly lucid, full of wonderfully awkward phrases and descriptions that are easier to comprehend than to see:

The world is empty, I thought as I walked along. Just that: the world is empty. Here, on these flayed, meat-colored shores, it becomes visible; here it becomes true. The world is empty. The words ran through me repeatedly, although I didn’t quite understand them. I didn’t even agree.

Since the novel is in translation, credit should be given to Häggblom for her wonderful invention of Marta in English, since Rynell surely created a perfectly forlorn version in her native tongue. Nonetheless, I can only assume that both writers do a remarkable job mastering the nuance of incantation which is always capable of holding us in a spell. Since Rynell is also an accomplished poet, it isn’t surprising that To Mervas at times reads like a novel in verse, a fluctuating meditation on the nature of life and living, a wonderfully complex metaphor for trying and failing and trying again.

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