In the classic children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand,” a bull loves nothing more than to sit in the field and smell the flowers. Ferdinand is large and strong, and has, it seems, been built for bullfighting. But he won’t budge for the picadors in Madrid. Eventually, he is trucked back home to live out his days under the cork tree.
Sonja, the 40-something protagonist of Dorthe Nors’ “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,” is Ferdinand’s kindred spirit. She’s tall, daydreams of childhood days wandering the rye fields in her hometown of Balling in rural Jutland, and can’t seem to be forced to fight. Her fight, however, isn’t in a ring, but in a car: She is trying to learn how to drive.
The plot involves a series of avoidances. Sonja writes letters to her sister, Kate, and throws them away. Halfway through a meditation hike with her massage therapist, she uses the need to relieve her bladder as an excuse to flee. She doesn’t like Jytte, her crass driving instructor, so she slyly switches to Folke. She suffers from “benign paroxysmal positional vertigo,” chronic dizziness, which is set off by bending over quickly, so she avoids that, too.
The obvious metaphor — “I can’t shift for myself,” Sonja says, trying to get her instructors to shift for her — is that Sonja is trying to gain control of her life, but that life and self are tied up in language, and that language is lost, unmaintained, hazy. “Sonja looks at the carrousel. She hasn’t tried one since she was six, maybe seven. Back then, she spoke Jutlandic without irony. Now she no longer knows what language she speaks.”
The chasm between her and Kate, she discovers, grows because Sonja once waxed poetic about a “long dark ravine between a piggery and an equipment shed,” saying, “Only the devil himself could live in such an intestine.”
And now, “She’s not sure that Kate likes her when she sounds like herself.” Even her job, translating bloody crime novels from Swedish, has her tethered to someone else’s language.
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, at times the novel’s word choices get murky, and conjoined clauses can feel like split lanes, two ideas going in different directions. It’s a tiny, if hardly noticeable, distraction. With this quietly moving story, though, Nors seems on the fast track to becoming a global writer.
Last year she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, and in 2013 she became the first Danish fiction writer featured in the New Yorker. Although this book feels like a more straightforward departure from Nors’ dark fables and experimental novellas, we’ll be lucky when new translations come in.
Josh Cook’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
By: Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 188 pages, $16.
Event: 7 p.m. June 20, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.