Sunday, 30 December 2012

Doppler, by Erlend Loe

Erlend Loe's Doppler is definitely the quirkiest book I’ve read all year, and I absolutely loved it.

This is the story of a man - Doppler - who decides he has had enough. He has had enough of playing the game, of toeing the line - enough of being ‘nice’. When we meet him, he has already shirked his responsibilities and is quite contentedly living in a tent in the forest above his home city, Oslo, in Norway. It’s not exactly remote, or cut off, but it’s peaceful and he’s able to mind his own business. The question is, though, how long will things remain this way?

Let’s not be shy about this, Doppler does what he needs to to survive without becoming a part of the capitalist machine. This involves a bit of minor breaking and entering, a bit of bartering and, on page one, the killing of an elk, the main consequence of which is that, following a hilarious game of chase and tag, the elk’s baby moves into Doppler’s tent with him. Now, I’m not too familiar with elk. I have never met one, but I generally imagine them to be pretty big creatures, so either Doppler has an unusually large tent, or baby elk are quite tiddly. Either way, though, Bongo - as Doppler names him - quickly becomes an integral part of Doppler’s life.

As for Doppler’s shirked responsibilities, these soon come calling, namely in the form of a pregnant wife, a teenage daughter and a young son. The miracle of this story is that despite the fact that Doppler has, to all intents and purposes, abandoned his family, I cannot look down upon him for it. I think at first they - and I - have a little trouble understanding it, but ultimately it’s impossible to not accept it: this is simply the way that Doppler is. He means no harm by it, but he just cannot live the way he used to any longer. His son, Gregus, joins Doppler in the forest, cold-sweating his way through kiddy-TV withdrawal, and his wife simply says, go, do what you need to do, and there is a beautiful simplicity to these words and actions, the trust and love inherent within them.

Of course, things are not quite that simple - otherwise Doppler wouldn’t have a tale to tell. First there is the brilliant scene where he is captured breaking into his regular ‘theft’ house, and the scene where on a rare night in his family home, he awakes to find someone breaking in there too. How does Doppler react to his intruder? Offers him coffee of course. And gradually, as Doppler spreads - intentionally or unintentionally? - word about the simplicity of forest life, he finds the very things he went there for being subtly removed from him. This is perfect irony: he wants everyone else to understand what he is doing and to acknowledge that its the better way to be, but if they’re going to follow suit, he’d really much rather they did so somewhere else, please.

And all the while in the background is a running theme of fatherhood. Doppler is grieving the death of his father and, whilst questioning his own fathering abilities, becomes a father-figure not only to Bongo but to the others who follow him into the forest. What conclusions is he ultimately going to come to? What does being a father mean? And what does being alone mean?

The tag line on the front of my copy says, “An elk is for life - not just for Christmas,” and I’d say the same for Doppler. A simple fable that works perfectly.

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