John Holten’s Oslo, Norway is a lot of things. At first glance the book, Holten’s second to be published by Broken Dimanche Press (the publisher he co-founded in Berlin), appears much like any other example of literary fiction, introducing the reader to a roster of self-effacing and peculiar characters framed within a failing relationship, but underneath this lurks something rather more interesting. Frequently described as a kind of literary atlas, Oslo works in two senses: firstly as a conventional map of the city and secondly as a map of the main characters experience with love.
The novel charts the relationship of a young couple in Oslo as the two come, by separate paths, to the end of their time together. In the course of the story William and Sybille are jostled against the machinations of a collection of drug dealers, sirens and extended family. Around this core Holten weaves a meta-fictional thread that draws on Norse mythologies of destruction and rebirth, a theme mirrored in the actions of the couple themselves. This thread begins to take charge of the narrative as the story goes on, and culminates in a brave representation of writers block and the authorial process.
This is what we need to talk about if we want to look at the course love takes: even the strongest love has to combine opposites and take on something approaching a contingent attitude and unite what in one lover is nothingness, a sort of inherent nihilism, but which afore the other is life itself, the world they call their own and which they share with the other. They must become the guide to a territory marked out on a shared map.
The particular curiosity, and part of the success, of the book lies in the formal decisions taken by Holten; the most successful of these being his use of pronouns as a kind of textual ‘key’ (in the geographical sense) by which readers can unlock this literary atlas. Beautifully produced, the book was spurred by his intention that it be reflective of the digressive way we interact with the written word today, whether on screen or paper. Oslo is broken into four sections, each named for a cartographic concept (Contour, Hachure, Neatline and Legend), which are further separated into thirteen chapters, the titles for the most of which are rooted in real-world Oslo locations. In this way the novel becomes a very literal atlas of the city, each section is initialled with plain line-art illustrations of streets drawn by Holten himself, through which the reader navigates the city’s volatile geography.
Maps, like novels, are no longer the same. Nor should they be. Trying to make a novel that is also a guidebook or street atlas becomes a somewhat eccentric undertaking, if not a little absurd.
Much like an atlas, however, one can progress through the landscape of the novel in a number of ways. In an interview with Alison Hugill on the website of the Berlin Art Link magazine, Holten said: “… you don’t necessarily turn the next page in contiguity with the one you’re on, but rather you jump around a bit. This was visually very interesting. In so many words, the narrative element of the book can be experienced in any order, highlighting the intransigence of cartography and the discrepancy between any map and the territory it represents.”
In a sense Oslo is a city of convergence – the streets run down from the hills surrounding it and all channel themselves into an area downtown by the low entrance to the sea, as if somehow the old fort had slowly released advancing tentacles.
Oslo, Norway, the second in Holten’s Ragnarok trilogy that began with the widely acclaimed The Readymades, cleverly gathers romance, cartography and Nordic myth in a meta-fictional retelling or interpretation of the streets of the eponymous capital. A self-aware tale of love and the fictions that are told in the process of it, the novel will be enjoyed by readers of Bolaño, Cortázar and Calvino and should be attempted by others.
Phil Clement studied English and Creative Writing in Aberystwyth. Since he left there he has lived in a library, written short stories, and reviewed books. Currently he works as an assistant editor at Amberley Publishing. Follow Phil here.
Oslo Norway was published in April 2015 by Broken Dimanche Press.