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Jo Nesbo: Norway has noir, just ask the writer

Li diuen el nou Stieg Larsson, però va començar a publicar abans que l'autor de la trilogia 'Millennium'. Ja ha venut 14 milions de llibres i Scorsese té previst adaptar una de les seves novel·les

Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian writer of crime thrillers, is already being called the next Stieg Larsson. The comparison is a little premature: Nesbo, who has sold some 14 million books worldwide, is a household name (1) in Europe. But in the US, even though Martin Scorsese recently announced plans to adapt Nesbo's 2007 novel "The Snowman", his reputation is not yet Larssonesque.

Hoping to build the brand and anticipating the publication of Nesbo's novel "Phantom" in the fall, Nesbo's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, flew him to New York last week for Book Expo America. Nesbo had his hair, which had grown almost to Viking length, cut for the occasion, put on a suit and met with booksellers and journalists. He also stuck his head in at some parties and charmed the audience at a breakfast, where he was introduced by Stephen Colbert, who in honor of "Fifty Shades of Grey" peppered his remarks with random phrases like "turgid man-root."

"You guys are so good at speaking English," Nesbo, whose English is in fact fluent, said, looking at Colbert. "That's the best part of seeing my books come out in translation - all the words I don't understand."

Nesbo, who is 52, has written 16 books, nine of them about a damaged alcoholic detective named Harry Hole. He began publishing in 1997, years before Larsson's Millennium trilogy, and his early fame was such that in some ways it's more accurate to say that Stieg Larsson, a Swede, was the next Jo Nesbo. Even the prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, is a fan.

It did not hurt his publishing success that before beginning to write, Nesbo, blond and handsome with steel-blue eyes, was already a rock star. His band, Di Derre, for which Nesbo is the songwriter and lead singer, at one point had the best-selling album in Norwegian history. Nesbo (whose first name is pronounced "Yoo" in Norwegian, although he has pretty much resigned himself to being called "Joe" in English) said recently that the band's name means "Those Guys."

"For a while we were so bad that we changed the name every week," he explained. "But after a couple of years we got better, and people would come into the clubs and ask about those guys, that band that was here."

He added that being known as a musician before becoming a writer was both an advantage and a disadvantage.

"People don't take you seriously," he said, "and that's fair. Singers who write books - you should be suspicious."

One year, he recalled, he played 180 gigs (2) while also holding down (3) his day job as a stockbroker (4). The schedule wore him down (5), and in 1996, burned out (6), he took a leave (7) and booked a flight to Australia.

While on the plane from Oslo to Sydney he began writing what became the first Harry Hole novel, a book called "Flaggermusmannen," or "The Batman," which has yet to come out (8) in English. At the time, he said, he was not all that interested in crime fiction but chose the form because it seemed "the easy way out."

"When I grew up in Molde," he said, referring to his hometown, "the friends I hung out with (9) were all going to write novels. We would go into the cafe and wear long coats that we got from the Salvation Army; suck in our cheeks (10), so we would look like characters in a Dostoyevsky novel; and discuss literature, books that we had never read. We were all very pretentious."

Back then, Nesbo read American detective writers like Chandler and Hammett. He is also a fan of Jim Thompson. But he said he had been influenced by Ibsen as much as by anyone.

"The way his stories are constructed, he's a crime writer," Nesbo said. "On the facade everything looks normal, but then something happens, not necessarily a murder, and the truth is revealed bit by bit (11). It's all dark secrets, which have to do with relationships, the same as in crime stories."

He added: "After I finished the first one, I wasn't sure I would write another crime novel, but what I discovered was that in this form you have a dialogue with the reader that is special to the crime novel. It's like being a magician onstage. You are supposed to manipulate your readers. You are supposed to make them look at your right hand while you are doing a trick with your left. That sort of contract makes for a more intimate way of storytelling."

Unlike Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson's protagonist, who is more or less well-adjusted by the standards of Scandinavian crime fiction, Harry Hole belongs to the genre's older, darker tradition, which probably owes something to American noir writing. In Norwegian, Hole (pronounced HOOL-eh) is a common name with no connotations of emptiness (12), but all the same, Harry is a loner (13), an obsessive smoker and drinker who has trouble with authority and difficulty sustaining relationships.

From injuries sustained in earlier books he has a scar (14) from his jaw (15) to his ear and a titanium middle finger, and in "Phantom" he sustains a cut in the neck that seems unlikely to heal (16) well, since he bandages it with duct tape (17) .

In an email, Margaret Hayford O'Leary, a professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., wrote that Harry came from a long line of Scandinavian crime fiction exposing "the dark side of a seemingly ideal society."

"My theory is that Norwegians are almost embarrassed by the accolades (18) heaped on (19) their society," she said, explaining that the books may be a way of owning up to (20) national problems and secrets.

As the series has gone on, the Hole books have gotten steadily grimmer (21), and "Phantom" is the bleakest (22) yet.

"I found the spot where Harry is the most vulnerable and I put a drill in there and kept drilling," Nesbo said, and added: "It's not like I'm tired of writing about him, but after every book I find myself increasingly tired. I find myself becoming tired of Harry and his universe, because it's a very dark place to be. So I have to take time off from Harry. For a while I thought I don't necessarily have to end the story. I could just stop writing about him. But in my head I know what's going to happen. What I can say is that he's not going to have eternal life, and when he's gone, he's not going to resurrect."

Nesbo said people ask him whether the Hole books are autobiographical.

"It's hard for me to remember now to what degree I knew Harry when I started writing - whether he developed or was already fully formed," he said. '`He probably wasn't. It isn't until characters start talking that you get to know them".

"At first I was pretty sure he didn't have anything to do with me, but then I realized that wasn't true. All writers write about themselves - that's inevitable. You put in your basic values, your views on politics and popular culture, the way you think about other people. It's really hard to have a main character with whom you don't share these things. But then there are things we don't share at all. He has an addictive personality, and I guess I can relate to that, but I'm not an alcoholic."

He smiled. "And for some reason he's not a big fan of my band."

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GLOSSARY

1. household name: nom conegut

2. gig: concert

3. to hold down a job: fer una feina

4. stockbroker: agent de borsa

5. to wear down: desgastar

6. to burn out: esgotar-se professionalment

7. leave: baixa

8. to come out: sortir

9. to hang out with: passar temps amb

10. cheek: galta

11. bit by bit: de mica en mica

12. emptiness: buidor

13. loner: solitari

14. scar: cicatriu

15. jaw: mandíbula

16. to heal: curar

17. duct tape: cinta adhesiva

18. accolade: lloança

19. heap: omplir

20. to own up to: confessar

21. grim: lúgubre

22. bleak: desolador

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EXERCISE 1

Find the following words in the text:

1. Extending throughout the whole world.

2. A document saying when things have to happen.

3. The town where you were born.

4. An outward appearance.

5. Unlawful killing.

6. An act intended to deceive.

7. A style of literature or art.

8. A person who is addicted to alcohol.

EXERCISE 2

Put the verbs in brackets in the correct tense or form.

1. Nesbo, who is 52, (write) 16 books.

2. He began (publish) in 1997.

3. You are supposed (manipulate) your readers.

4. I have (take) time off from Harry.

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ANSWERS: CLICK HERE


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