I read the opening scene of The Conqueror, the second novel in a trilogy by the Norwegian writer Jan Kjærstad, with relief. The trilogy depicts the life of Jonas Wergeland, an ordinary boy from an undistinguished Oslo neighborhood, who rises to national and even international fame as a television personality. In the 600 pages of the first novel in the series, The Seducer, we read of Jonas’s travels, triumphs, and yes, seductions (there are many, from a beautiful and accomplished cast of women to, eventually, an entire nation transfixed by his documentaries). Jonas is equipped with a magic penis, a set of memorized quotations from books he hasn’t read, a silver thread in his spine, a crystal prism in his pocket, and an unerring eye for great art. He can’t go wrong. The Seducer is a vast and undeniably ambitious novel, but also, in its unremitting catalog of the successes of its hero, a little wearying.
So it was with some apprehension that I turned to its sequel. I needn’t have worried. From the first sentence – “‘I thought he was going to rape me,’ the woman said, reporting the incident later” – it’s clear that this novel will deliver a very different view of Jonas’s life. Over the next four pages a drunken Jonas vomits over his cabdriver, a young woman, who’d hitherto been one of Jonas’s many admirers, boasts of killing a man, delivers a few crude remarks, and collapses, nearly comatose on a sidewalk. We soon discover that the unnamed and admiring narrator of The Seducer has been replaced by another, a mysterious, black-clad woman with scarred hands who carries “an odor reminiscent of burnt horn.” This strange figure may be no more reliable than her predecessor, but she, at least, isn’t interested in hagiography.
In The Seducer, we encountered a series of attractive characters: a charismatic actor who encourages Jonas to pursue a career in television, a doting grandfather, and a precocious childhood friend. In The Conqueror, we learn that the actor is a pederast, and the grandfather a wartime collaborator. Jonas’s childhood friend, Nefertiti, vanishes entirely; there’s a replacement, Little Eagle, but that friendship ends when Jonas steals the boy’s stamp collection.
There’s still plenty of sex in The Conqueror, but it’s not often the transformative experience it was in the original. Instead, Jonas’s couplings are marred by more than a hint of coercion, and a bout of gonorrhea. The silver thread in Jonas’s spine becomes a piece of dragon horn, the crystal prism in his pocket a hockey puck, and his magic penis a standard one. In both novels, Jonas’s wife, Margrete, is murdered the night he returns from a trip abroad. In the first, Jonas is overcome with regret that he left her alone. In the second, Jonas has a history of jealous violence that culminates when he shoots Margrete with his grandfather’s Luger. The tale depends on the teller, after all.
The Conqueror is not a perfect novel (in fairness, no book, or three books, of this length and scope could be). Though it is impressively structured, with the events of Jonas’s life linked one to the next by theme, symbol, emotion, color and dream, rather than anything so prosaic as time, the very intricacy of that structure can undermine the narrative’s momentum. We are also asked a few too many rhetorical questions (“How does one become a murderer?” “How does one become a conqueror?” “Is this, then, where the story of his jealousy begins?”).
And often, after Kjærstad attempts a joke, I wished he hadn’t. On a visit to Istanbul, the city where he was conceived, Jonas looks on the Golden Horn, the strait of the Bosphorus that divides Europe and Asia, and notes that “his father must have had ‘a golden horn’ on that very night, since it had expelled the spermatozoa that fertilized his mother’s egg” (I hope this sentence reads better in the Norwegian; I suspect not, however, for later on that same page Kjærstad has Jonas deliver an equally lame joke in a neutral language: “Ich bin ein Byzantiner,” Jonas says, excited as he is by the activity on the harbor).
But Kjærstad also affords Jonas moments of clarity and insight, and these win out:
Jonas Wergeland never really rid himself of the fatal suspicion that you had to be a criminal to be a good storyteller. Or that behind the best stories there was always a hurt, a wound, much in the same way as a foreign body will, in the course of time, cause an oyster to make a pearl; which, when you get right down to it, means that a pearl is disease transformed into beauty.
In reading the narratives of Jonas Wergeland’s life, perhaps it’s best to trust no one thread, but the whole. Jonas is as much villain as hero, mediocrity as genius, liar as visionary, conqueror as seducer. And we don’t yet have the whole story. Open Letter will issue The Discoverer, the final volume of Kjærstad’s trilogy, this August. It’s no small praise that, though I’ve already followed Jonas’s exploits for 1100 pages, I’m looking forward to it.