JANUARY 15, 2019
THE ARROGANCE OF 19th- and 20th-century exploration has mostly dried up in the current century. Rarely do white men go on years-long expeditions into frozen or forbidden lands seeking to be the first to lay eyes on a secret landscape. The literature of foreign cultures, however, remains its own kind of unmapped territory. Despite a generic curiosity — what is life in Greenland like? Is it igloos and polar bears, or cities and sidewalks? — the average Western reader too often forgoes the thrill of discovering a brand-new perspective from an unfamiliar shore. In the early 20th century, it took a dogsled and the loss of a few toes to find out what Greenland is like; today, it only takes a daring press and a willing translator.
Niviaq Korneliussen’s Last Night in Nuuk may be the first novel of the 21st century to travel from Greenland into American letters. (It’s certainly the first written by a native to be translated into English that this reviewer has heard of.) Thus, it bears a heavy burden. It must be foreign but familiar, it must offer a glimpse into life in Greenland that doesn’t lapse into language or customs so local as to be incomprehensible, and it must show the ways that Greenlanders are just like Westerners even as it plays up the beguiling differences. Nuuk achieves all this, yet aside from the lure of its provenance and a handful of charms it isn’t a very good novel.
First, with its design padding — the novella-length work features large print and creative spacing — and low-stakes plot revolving around the dissolute lives of a group of young people, Nuuk is pretty slight. Each of the novel’s five sections, which are titled after songs (“Crimson & Clover,” “Stay,” “What a Day”), is narrated by a different character. (The characters Arnaq and Inuk are named using the Greenlandic words for “woman” and “man,” which is just as heavy-handed as it sounds.) Korneliussen uses text messages, letters, and journal entries to enliven the book’s narration, and she includes a glossary of Greenlandic words, which is helpful, and a dramatis personae, which is superfluous. All of this technical folderol signals an author insecure about her lack of experience — instead of wielding textual strategies with confidence and purpose, she distracts the reader with youth culture.
The thin story amounts to nothing more gripping than early adulthood drama sparked by infidelity, the struggle with sexual identity, and ill-advised love affairs. The characters that wrestle with their behaviors are more interesting than those that don’t: Arnaq, who drinks and sleeps around to avoid herself, is more compelling than Fia, who flippantly decides to stop sleeping with men and sort of, like, be a lesbian now. The sections overlap in the way of Pulp Fiction, with double takes of key incidents from differing perspectives. Some of Arnaq’s text messages with Ivik appear in Ivik’s section in slightly different form, and the events Sara narrates loop back to Fia’s opening section.
However, the characters’ voices are hardly differentiated, so the sections don’t feel discrete. They are aspects of a single consciousness clawing through the Sturm und Drang of the late teens and early 20s in search of the relative wisdom and composure of adulthood. It’s easy to sympathize, but in Korneliussen’s hands that struggle doesn’t make for good literature — Less Than Zero, for all its flaws, is infinitely more skilled.
Some of the clunky dialogue and awkward phrasing may be a result of the book’s translation history: Korneliussen translated the novel from Greenlandic into Danish, which Anna Halager then converted to English. But even a game of linguistic Telephone can’t excuse dialogue like this:
“Are you bored with me?”
“What’s the reason then?”
“I’ve just told you, I don’t know why!” I say angrily.
“IVINNGUAQ! Why won’t you let me touch you?”
“Sara! Stop it!”
“WHY AM I NOT ALLOWED TO FUCK YOU?” she shouts.
Oy. But it’s not all bad. Here is Arnaq speaking for every college student who ever partied in order to ignore herself:
I take another bath. Oh, holy weekend. I put on some makeup. Oh, unpredictable weekend. I fix my hair. Oh, erratic weekend. I put on some perfume. Oh, troublemaker weekend. I’m ready. Oh, delightful weekend. I’m partying again. Oh, eternal weekend. Repetitive weekend. Walking in partying circles. Ready to go again.
The book resembles television in its quick scene changes, its multi-camera approach, its low-stakes conflicts, its shallow epiphanies. But even though Last Night in Nuuk is the work of an immature writer, the writing shows promise. It’s also pushing against the limitations of its origin. The first Greenlandic novel was published as recently as 1914, and the country’s native literature has rarely passed beyond the boundaries of its small population. Scandinavian letters also includes the Sagas, some of the oldest and best-known literature in history, so Greenlandic literature exists under a long, deep shadow. It may be well developed, but it’s late-blooming, overlooked, and local.
This local focus becomes one of the book’s main assets: Korneliussen portrays life in Greenland subtly, without much politicizing. Inuk’s section includes a fascinating, if oblique, depiction of the disappointments of growing up Greenlandic, as well as some of the novel’s more thoughtful narration:
You’re a Greenlander when you respect your ancestors.
You’re a Greenlander when you love your country.
You’re a Greenlander when you’re proud of your nationality.
You’re a Greenlander when you feel Greenlandic.
What it really means to be a Greenlander:
You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic.
You’re a Greenlander when you beat your partner. […]
You’re a Greenlander when you’re evil.
You’re a Greenlander when you’re queer.
Our nation, she who is ancient; go to the mountain and never come back.
Last Night in Nuuk is not up to the task of fully delineating the Greenlandic character, of telling American audiences all they need to know about living in Nuuk. Not even for one night. Less a novel than a clutch of loose stories, it reads like a long project by an undergraduate with lots to say and even more to learn.
It’s essential that Western presses and translators take risks on writers from countries without an established international literary presence. Given Korneliussen’s popularity in her home region, she was an obvious choice to introduce the Greenlandic spirit to outsiders. She just wasn’t a very inspired one. But as any regular traveler knows, the big tourist attraction everyone recommends almost never lives up to its hype. Once you’re in country, the real discoveries can happen.