© Torben Eskerod
By Marianne Ping Huang
When Jens-Martin Eriksen (b.1955) made his debut with Nani in 1985, the novel about the
death of the punk girl Nana warranted attention, both for its subject of
violence and death and for the author’s distinctive and promising prose style.
Since his debut Eriksen has, in seven more novels – and also in film scripts,
prose monologues and short stories – continued to challenge conventional thinking and has brought new life to the Danish
In the early part of his work,
Jens-Martin Eriksen narrows his focus towards a Beckettian white space, a
development that in 1990 reached its climax with the novel Den hvide væg.
Thereafter the focus is widened towards narrative and debate, most clearly with
the 1997 novel Vinter ved daggry, a militia soldier’s account of his
participation in a genocide. But cutting across this movement one finds strong,
general themes; in particular, the manner in which memory marks human beings
and the need to give voice to the most difficult memories, to tell of life’s
pain. In the same way Eriksen’s prose can be recognized from first to last by
its thudding and grinding rhythm.
In Jim og jeg (1989) we
find memory and narrative treated in the image of a double – a motif that will
recur in Eriksen’s novels. The title figure ‘Jim-and-I’ is a pair of boyhood
chums, and their friendship almost makes them into Siamese twins, even though
Jim is the sailor who gets all the adventures and the pretty girl, while ‘I’
works in the shipyard back home, dreaming of all the things Jim can and does
do. Characteristically for Jens-Martin Eriksen’s mastery of the novel, the pain is not portrayed in a
realistic description. On the other hand, it is channelled into the language
that the first person narrator tries to give the story of Jim and himself.
In Den hvide væg the narrator is also haunted by terrifying experiences. He lies on the outermost
edge of his memory and his life – on a boat-bridge in the town of his childhood
and tries to attain clarity about an early capsized life, marked by incest and
parricide. The novel, which is Jens-Martin Eriksen’s most radical experiment
with language and form, is an almost disintegrated narrative, permeated by
grotesque and surreal scenes, in which the man who is telling the story tries
to reproduce the memory he cannot have had as a child, namely his conception
during his father’s rape of his older sister. Den hvide væg concludes
that part of Eriksen’s work in which the victim and the victim’s language are
displayed and thereby raise a resistance to the submission to pain.
In the two novels that follow,
De uforsonlige and Memoire, both published in 1992, the narrators
are active practitioners of the art of narration, even though they are
tormented by shocking experiences – more rapes, incests, more suspicious scenes
in the bosom of the family. But now the narrative is a mode of liquidating the
past and beginning a kind of life again. De uforsonlige is a dialogue
novel between two narrators, Alex and Monika, who in the course of a single
night stage each other’s worst experiences in a linguistic and erotic excess. Memoire
resumes the Beckettian aspect of Den
hvide væg and is like it one of Jens-Martin Eriksen’s most outstanding
novels. Unlike Den hvide væg, however, Memoire is divided into
several large narratives – seven in all – which together constitute a modern
In Vinter ved daggry Jens-Martin Eriksen again takes up the narrative as a theme of
liberation. Here one will recognize
Eriksen’s ability to turn the inhuman into a dense and emphatic language. Vinter
ved daggry paints the portrait of an ordinary person who because of habits
and sins of omission that do not distinguish him greatly from the average
newspaper reader and television viewer, is caught in the role of executioner.
The novel is also a tightly-packed description of the cold, abstract and
dehumanised language of war, which circumscribes a landscape inhabited by
peasants and traders in co-ordinates, and where executions by a shot in the
back of the neck over a mass grave are called ‘to finish up’.
Inspired by Samuel Beckett, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Thomas Bernhard, Jens-Martin Eriksen is a great interpreter of the modern novel’s
settling of accounts with the painful, the repulsive and the barbaric.
Translated by David McDuff
The photo is reproduced with permission from the photographer. The photo must not be reproduced on paper or digitally. Further rights can be obtained by contacting Torben Eskerod