Another book that I got as a gift. The title translates along the lines of The Twelfth. Do Not Think You Can Escape. It is a reportage but mixed with other genres as well. The main topic is the Law of Jante. A set of rules stated in Aksel Sandemose’s book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Sandemose did not invent it, but rather codified the existing practices in his description of the fictional town of Jante. Here’s the list of Jante’s Law rules:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
- Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things about you?
Now you know why the title. I’ve read Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly and it was a quite cheerful portrait of a nation. It had its quirks but all in all, people were good, the weather was bad, life was pleasant. Springer even mentions her book at some point. But what he tried to do here is the very opposite of what the majority of writers do when they write about Denmark. Springer went after its dark side. He came across it accidentally speaking to someone in Denmark, when the person told him they were raised in Jante. Then he met another person and they said the same thing, so he asked if they know each other. Obviously, it caused a lot of laughs and then a fascinating explanation. That’s how he found his scoop, you may say.
The book interweaves the chapters on the Law of Jante and Springer’s investigation, with chapters on Denmark’s bridges and other’s describing a mysterious Ole, that refuses to speak to Springer. Apparently Ole is a man who after reading Sandemose’s book, decided he wants to live in Jante. So he moved to Nykøbing Mors, which is said to have inspired Sandemose to create Jante. Springer wants to speak to him to understand, why he actively went after what usually is perceived as an oppressive and negative side of Scandinavian societies.
He tells us stories of people he interviewed, their perceptions and experiences of the Law of Jante in action. It is often heartbreaking. And it is scary. I was never in love with the idea of a small cozy community, but the Law of Jante embodies everything that’s wrong with it. It suffocates and strangles you, makes to obey for the greater good (you could think of Hot Fuzz as a satire on that concept too).
He also writes about Sandemose, and while initially, we side with him, for his derision for the phenomena he codified. All is not so picture-perfect when one dives into his biography. Springer also manages to speak with his son at length, adding fascinating detail to the portrait of a deeply disturbed artist.
The chapters flick and move like beads in the caleidoscope, showing us new patterns with every page we turn. It is a fascinating read. What Springer is looking for is an answer to why does such a thing as the Law of Jante exists. Is it channeling the dark side of the societies? Or maybe it defines something so bad that it really does not exist, like our worst fear? Or is it a way of naming something in order to fight it? Or do we need Jante to have something we continuously escape? A non-place that haunts us. A moral landscape that is terrifying and oppressive.
I read this book at the end of April, so still in lockdown, life was slower so I was paying a lot more attention to it. And started noticing things, that I can only call synchronicity. It happened with this book too. At some point, Springer talks to a typographer Poul Søgren. Poul learned from his master that type can be the expression of a nation’s culture. So he came up with Jante Antiqua. I probably would have happily read over the paragraph and moved on, if not for the fact that few months earlier I read Never Use Futura by Douglas Thomas, which brought the subject of typography a bit closer home.
Another example of synchronicity was the quote from A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks where Sandemose writes how a mountain looks different from each angle, especially as we walk around its base. This is very similar to the thoughts of Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust chapter on mountain walking and climbing.
Again I’m not attaching any special significance to those patterns, I merely think they prove I’ve become more attentive to things during the lockdown.
For now, the book is only available in Polish, but when (I think it’s a matter of when not if) gets translated it is well worth the read. A unique opportunity to explore the dark side of Denmark, the country is really about more than just Lego and hygge. You can get his first book History of a Disappearance in English. Funnily enough, I haven’t read that one yet.