Doppler by Erlend Loe

I live in Melbourne, a place that is frequently listed as one of the world’s most liveable cities. Yet if I think about the poster-child for modern living, the honours go to Scandinavian countries with their superior public health, education, childcare and aged-care systems. I’m quite sure that climate is what drags Scandinavian cities down when it comes to ‘liveability’ (notably, cost of living is generally excluded from liveability indexes).

With this in mind, meet Andreas Doppler – he’s living the Norwegian dream – wife and two children, good job, nice house in Oslo. One day Doppler is cycling (on his flash mountain bike) through the forest, when he crashes. Lying on the forest floor amongst the heather, Doppler has an epiphany – he doesn’t like people, and he thinks he may also have unresolved issues regarding his father’s death. So doing what really only wealthy-upper-middle-class-hipsters can afford to do, Doppler leaves his family and goes to live in the forest. In a tent. With an elk named Bongo.

“All of a sudden I wasn’t thinking about whether we should have Italian tiles or Spanish ones or matt or gloss, or whether we should simply treat ourselves to glass mosaic, which of course my wife was really keen on. Not to mention colour… And I wasn’t thinking about the mixer taps, either, even though they are available in seven hundred different types and can be delivered in six weeks if they are in brushed steel or quicker if you’re happy with the standard model, or the bathtub which we’d had to discuss the same day as USA and England had begun their campaign in Iraq. I remember being irritated when I discovered that now we would also have to take a stance on this war. It was very distracting. As if it wasn’t enough to have to decide on all this bathroom stuff. Now we would have to take sides in Iraq. I didn’t like things going on in the world which in effect reduced what I used my brainpower on to trivia. For weeks it had irritated me that they couldn’t wait to start the bombing down there until we had finished doing up the bathroom. To hell with them, I thought.”

Doppler by Erlend Loe is billed as a modern fable (is this what we call stories about #firstworldproblems now?!). It’s a month-by-month account of Doppler’s time in the forest – there’s a few plot twists in this short novel, a fair bit of navel-gazing and conversations with an elk (or rather, monologues – it turns out that Bongo is a very good listener).

“According to the elk calendar, he’s on the cusp of becoming a teenager, I would guess. This is a sensitive and defiant period, and we have many long discussions about it. Bongo leaves the tent in a temper several times, but happily he always comes back.”

Borrowing from the fable, there is an element of the ridiculous in this story however if you accept the notion that a city-dwelling guy can become a forest-dwelling misanthrope without any remorse, it makes for compelling reading.

But did I learn from it? Yes and no. Doppler is disdainful of selfish and narrow lives and yet in one sense, his is the same, but in a forest rather than a house built of blond, treated birch wood. It’s a luxury to be able to ‘check-out’ of society.

The book was first published in Norway almost ten years ago, a time when the idea of a ‘sea-change’ (or a tree-change) was a little more avant-garde. Will we ever shift from our consumerist lifestyle to a simple, meaningful one? No, but the story gives you pause for thought about the real necessities in life (says she, typing this post on an iPad).

“After all, I am not an Indian, but a man of my time. A failed man of my time. or just a man of a failed time.”

3/5 Memorable, as only a story about a man and an elk can be (perhaps I need to add another half-star for the line “And there are limits to the shit I can put up with from elk” which is brilliant).

A handful of foods play an important part in this story, notably elk meat, giant Toblerones and skim milk but I’m picking out the reference to cloudberries. They sound lovely (I’ve never eaten them). Apparently cloudberries are rare, have a very short season and are almost impossible to cultivate. The irony that Doppler obtains cloudberries from a friend’s freezer as opposed to finding them in the forest is a nice touch.

If you were lucky enough to forage some, try this delicate Cloudberry Souffle.


3 responses

  1. Great review. I loved this book, and you pulled out my favorite passage: Iraq and bathroom tiles. This book is finally being published in the US this or next year. I bought it from Canada. Feels like a classic, though perhaps only rich white societies will get the angst Doppler has from having too much.

    • Agree that the wonderful irony in Doppler was created for rich societies. The bit about the tiles and Iraq made me laugh out loud – I wonder if all the rich, white readers of the book will admit to similar thoughts?!

      I think I got my copy via England – didn’t realise that it wasn’t available in the US. I wonder if they will stick with the same translation? There were a few errors and awkward sentences in my edition – those things don’t bother me but would hate picky reviewers to talk the book down on that basis.

  2. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from Olive Kitteridge to Doppler | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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