Lars Saabye Christensen: Herman

Herman - Cover ImageAuthor: Lars Saabye Christensen

Title: Herman

ISBN: 0099498278

Pages: 192

Do you need to empathise with a books central character to fully enjoy the story? An eternal question, and one with a personal, highly subjective response. For me the answer is no – something confirmed by reading Bleak House a few weeks ago. Bleak House is an incredible book – a complex, multi-layered, socially aware masterpiece, written in beautiful prose. But to be honest, if one of the main characters had been put through a mincing machine for the sake of plot development, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Herman by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen is a different book entirely.

The story revolves around Herman Fulkt, an eleven-year old Norwegian boy. Herman seems to daydream his way through life, using his vivid imagination and quick wits to navigate past any trouble caused by his lackadaisical attitude to the world in general and school in particular. Reality only begins to encroach after a trip to the barber, followed by an appointment with his doctor, reveal he is starting to lose his hair. Herman’s response to his gradually changing physical appearance, as well as the reaction it causes in others, is to retreat further into fantasy. It is only when reality hits hard again that Herman learns to cope with committing the schoolchild’s greatest crime: being different.

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like the plot of some terrible made-for-tv ‘disease of the week’ movie, but it’s far more substantial fare than that. As despite being only 180 pages long, the sparse nature of both plot and prose allow Herman the time and space to work through his situation, and find his own solution to how best to cope. But even better, we are given opportunity to genuinely care for Herman himself. For what sets this book apart is the brilliant characterisation of its protagonist. Christensen manages to paint a funny, quirky and deeply sympathetic character, without ever resorting to cliché or cheap emotional manipulation. In fact, it’s a long time since I can remember caring this much about a character from a novel. To the point where, about a third of the way through, I found myself cheating, and flicking to the back page to make sure Herman is ok. If he wasn’t I’d of closed the book, and set about tracking down the author’s email address so I could give him a piece of my mind.

Herman is a simple story, with a simple message: embrace who you are. It’s not trying to dazzle you with somersaulting prose or reach out for literary awards in a self-conscious ‘look at how clever I am’ way. It does something far more difficult; it makes you genuinely care about someone who doesn’t really exist. In its own way, it’s a minor classic – and that’s final.*

*You’ll need to read the book to understand why I added those last few words.

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~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

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