© Torben Eskerod
Jens-Martin Eriksen
 
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 novel.

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 artist novel.

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

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