ABBA. volvo. IKEA. Our obsession with all things Scandinavian runs deep. But that’s about to end. With the newly published English translation of Lars Mytting’s bestselling Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, a tipping point has been reached. Indeed, the title alone constitutes a capsular satire of our hushed reverence for the arboreal Zen supposedly suffusing Scandinavian civilization. (For comparison, imagine the hypothetical Appalachian Noir: Blasting, Shovelling, and Processing Coal in the West Virginian Style.) By lifting the curtain on our embarrassing Norse crush, Mytting has done us all a favour: we can say a collective goodbye to peak Scandinavia and reclaim our own Canadian sense of self.
Enough with the pickled herring, the sticky buns, the akvavit, the bizarre monosyllables used to describe cheap student-dorm bookcases and lamps—to say nothing of the self-induced humiliation that was Participaction, a Canadian program whose 1970s agitprop convinced a generation of Canucks that a typical sixty-year-old Swede was fitter than his thirty-year-old Canadian counterpart. In the domains of physical fitness, social justice, and industrial design, those perfect Scandinavians make everyone else feel bad about themselves.
I’m sure that Mytting is, in his smug Scandinavian way, a perfectly brilliant man. Certainly, he delivers a lucid argument for wood as the green fuel of the future. But by the time he makes his point, you’ll be searching for a match to set the book aflame. That’s because much of Norwegian Wood consists of photos of forests, cut trees, stacked logs—wood porn, in other words. At his best, Mytting delivers a clever exploration of Norway’s wood fetish. But in so doing, he has made himself the fetishist-in-chief.
Particularly obnoxious is the author’s description of tree felling as “proper work,” and of wood stacking as a remedy for an ailing old body. (When Mytting suggests the existence of a fire gene in Norwegian DNA, things get downright disturbing.) At one point, he argues that running out into the freezing cold to grab firewood allows one to “know the same deep sense of satisfaction that the cave dweller knew.” It sounds very much like he’s putting us on. (Then again, I have the same suspicion when IKEA tries to sell me a duvet cover tagged as Stenklöver.)
A few years back, when a Norwegian network adapted Norwegian Wood to a TV series, 20 percent of the country tuned in—despite the fact that a third of the show comprised near-silent footage of a wood stove. Like Talmudic scholars debating the correct way to interpret a passage from the Old Testament, viewers engaged in furious online flame wars about wood stacking and the correct use of bark as kindling. Why would we take our cues about energy policy, or anything, from a country that clearly hasn’t discovered Curb Your Enthusiasm or Game of Thrones?
On a deeper and more serious level, the problem with our obsession is that it’s based on a contradiction. On one hand, we tend to think of Scandinavians as poster children for enlightened social planning and humane policy-making. We project onto them the status of unerring gods. We applaud them even when they pillage and plunder. Never mind Hägar the Horrible; an inexplicably popular Irish-Canadian-produced Norse-themed melodrama, Vikings, is set to enter its fourth season.
On the other hand, for five decades now American readers have been gobbling up Scandinavian mystery novels that depict the region as a cesspool of crime, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, and nihilism. Stieg Larsson’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is a sociopathic vigilante. Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is a sad divorcé whose teenage daughter tries to commit suicide. Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole is a chain-smoking alcoholic. Even as we munch on Swedish meatballs to the tune of “Dancing Queen,” we know, deep inside, that there’s something rotten in the state of you know what.
So thank you, Lars Mytting. You may not have much to teach Canadians (hewers of wood that we are, thank you very much) about the best way to butcher a tree. But what we really needed was someone to swing an axe, however unwittingly, at our stubborn obsession with Europe’s weird, frigid attic.
This appeared in the December 2015 issue.