#3 Davidsen / The Woman from Bratislava

Leif Davidsen, The Woman from Bratislava, trans. from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland (London: Arcadia Books 2010 [2001]). An ambitious thriller that explores the legacy of the Second World War, but doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. 3 stars

The Woman from Bratislava (Eurocrime)

 Opening sentence: It was a story often used by security-cleared lecturers in the civilian branch of FET, by serving officers of a certain rank and other trusted members of PET when briefing new volunteers on the special conditions under which the secret services had to operate in a post-communist world.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, Davidsen has been described as ‘one of Denmark’s top crime writers’ (The Sunday Times). As a former journalist specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs, he tends to use the crime/thriller format to explore larger political and historical issues – in the case of The Woman from Bratislava, the legacy of the Second World War, set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War and the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

More specifically, the novel uses the story of a rather unusual family as a means of approaching the complex history of Danish involvement in the Second World War. In the post-communist Bratislava of 1999, middle-aged Danish lecturer Teddy Pedersen is approached by Mira, an Eastern European woman who claims to be his half-sister. She reveals that their Danish father, a former Waffen-SS officer, had not died in 1952 as Teddy had been led to believe, but had gone on to lead a secret second life in Yugoslavia. Shortly afterwards, Teddy’s Danish sister Irma is arrested on suspicion of being a former Stasi (East German) agent, one who has possible links to ‘the woman from Bratislava’. The novel explores the father’s influence on the political development of both sisters – and via them the lingering legacy of fascism in post-war Europe. If you haven’t spotted it already, Irma and Mira are anagrams of one another, which I *think* is supposed to indicate how inextricably intertwined their fates are. Or something profound, at any rate.

This is a very ambitious novel, but one that I felt over-reached itself in places. Davidsen chooses to focus on an extremely controversial bit of Denmark’s wartime past, namely the role of thousands of Danes who fought for the Nazis as members of the Danish Legion and Waffen-SS. The author attempts to provide a 360-degree examination of this historical moment, highlighting on the one hand the war-crimes committed by these young Danes in the service of Nazi ideology, and on the other, the hypocrisy of the Danish government, who in 1941 ‘blessed’ their departure for war, only to treat them as ‘pariahs and outcasts’ when Germany was defeated in 1945 (p.100). (Denmark is shown white-washing its wartime history, recasting its years of occupation by the Germans as a period of heroic resistance, and developing a strategic amnesia to cover the less savory aspects of that past).

In some respects, I admire Davidsen’s bravery in taking on such a controversial subject, and in trying to provide a rounded discussion of how these ‘Nazi Danes’ should be viewed. But at times, I felt that the exploration of their actions needed to be more nuanced, and I wasn’t able to follow the reasons why certain individuals felt moved to defend the Waffen-SS father, or to consider his post-war treatment unjust. It’s possible that Davidsen is trying to critique these characters’ blindness to the father’s criminal wartime activities (a form of misguided love or loyalty), but I’m not entirely convinced that this is the case. At certain points, there’s also a casual, problematic elision of fascism and communism, which rather confusingly leads communist characters to exhibit fascist sympathies and/or sympathy for fascists.

As if all of this were not enough, there’s an overarching thriller/espionage plotline involving the downing of a NATO fighter plane over Yugoslavia, which ends in a (for me largely incomprehensible) twist. It was all a bit too much for this simple reader.

Summary: There’s much to admire about the ambition and scope of this thriller, but its constituent parts do not add up to a satisfactory whole. It may be best suited for readers with an interest in the legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Woman from Bratislavia a rather wobbly 3 stars.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction Smorgasbord

Thanks to a tip-off from cavershamragu, I’ve spent the evening wallowing happy as a hippo in mud over at the ScandinavianBooks website.

Rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun and Selga Lagerlof are a whole host of Scandinavian crime writers. Indeed, five of the six authors featured under the heading of ‘contemporary and rising authors’ turn out to be crime writers too, illustrating the extent of the Scandi crime boom (as well as the present publishing clout of writers such as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum). 

You can browse Scandinavian crime on the site by writer or by nationality (for the latter, hover over the ‘crime’ tab at the top of the homepage). As one would expect, the Swedes are well represented (Sjowall / Wahloo, Mankell, Larsson and Nesser to name just a few), but so are the Norwegians (Dahl, Egeland, Holt, Nesbo, Fossum), the Danes (Davidsen and Peter Hoeg of Miss Smilla fame) and those amazing Icelanders (Indridason, Sigurdardottir). There are also a couple of Finnish authors, Sipila and Joensuu, whom I look forward to checking out. Typically, each author entry features a biography, a review/overview of key works and links to other sites, such as the affiliated Nordic Bookblog. There’s some information on film and TV adaptations too. 

It’s a veritable treasure trove if you’re new to Scandinavian crime and want to find out what all the fuss is about. Or, perhaps like me, you might have read many of the classics, and are keen to lay your hands on some lesser-known works. Either way, this site is a highly useful resource. Tack så mycket! 

Oh, and if you’re into Viking sagas, it’s also definitely the place for you. Apologies for the naffness that follows; unable to resist.

Danish crime: The Woman from Bratislava

One of the crime novels waiting for me under the Christmas tree was Leif Davidsen’s The Woman from Bratislava (2001). I’d been eyeing this one up for a while, and was very pleased that Santa had been clever enough to bring it along.

The Woman from Bratislava (Eurocrime)

I’ve not read any Danish crime fiction since Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992), but Davidsen, described by The Sunday Times as ‘one of Denmark’s top crime writers’, seems like a good author to try out. He’s a former journalist who specialised in Russian and Eastern European affairs, and has a particular interest in the legacy of the Second World War and the Bosnian conflict. He tends to use the crime/thriller format to explore larger political and historical issues, which immediately draws me to his work. In The Woman from Bratislava, a middle-aged Danish lecturer receives a visit from an Eastern European woman who says she’s his half-sister. Their father, a former SS officer, had been declared dead in 1952, but in fact went on to live a second, secret life. Oh, and his other sister is a possible Stasi agent… 

All this before the first murder takes place :O

So far I’ve only read the prologue, but was gripped by its fusion of European history, secret service intrigue and dry humour. I’m hoping that the rest of the novel lives up to this early promise and will report in due course.

The Woman from Bratislava is published by EuroCrime, an imprint of Arcadia. Their website is one of my favourite places to browse for new crime fiction in translation (when I looked in today there were Norwegian, Swiss, French, Spanish and Greek novels on offer – and that was just the first page).

See later post for a full review of The Woman from Bratislava