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Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl

Oneworld Publications, 480 pages, $24.99 (c2014, US Ed. 2016)
Translated by K. E. Semmel

The 480 pages of “The Hermit” by Danish author Thomas Rydahl are densely packed with storylines, characterizations, and tourist information on Spain’s Canary Islands. It felt more like 680 pages, but in a good way.

Erhard Jørgensen is in his 60s. He has lived on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries for almost two decades. It’s quite a contrast: a pale Dane in the tropical, Spanish-speaking Canary Islands. This is what we learn about Erhard in fairly short order. Erhard is a taxi driver and a good one. He left his wife and two daughters in Denmark but sends them money every month. He only has four fingers on one hand.

Rydahl has created one of the more idiosyncratic crime novel heroes in recent memory. Erhard reads books and seems smart, but he does really dumb things. Or maybe they are just things that come from alternative thinking by an individual with an incomplete personality. For instance, at the beginning of the book, a fellow resident of the island dies in a traffic accident. Erhard picks up one of the man’s fingers that has become detached. He takes it home, nurtures it, pets it, and places it on the hand with the missing finger. He proudly drives his cab with the new finger taped to his hand. Definitely alternative thinking.

Although he did live in a cave by the sea when he first arrived, Erhard is not a hermit any longer, but most people call him “Hermit” anyway. However, he does live in a remote part of the island, with two goats who sometimes eat the washed clothes he has hung on his line. Soon he is also joined by a young woman who has suffered traumatic brain injury. She is in a coma. Rather than take her to a hospital, a thin train of reasoning leads Erhard to try to take care of her himself. How did he manage to get himself into this situation?

Erhard had been relatively content — although a little lonely — to drive his cab, tune pianos occasionally, and drink beers or lumumbas (whatever those are) or other spirits with his young friend Raul and Raul’s girlfriend, Beatriz. How did he go from that to running from the police, taking care of a comatose woman, hiding a prostitute, and tracking down the mother of a dead infant found in a cardboard box in the backseat of a car stuck in the sand of a popular beach?

Part of Erhard’s problem is his soft heart. Another problem is his lack of clarity. Yet another is his inability to understand what other people mean. He worries that he cannot judge other people’s motives adequately. He wonders if he should be courting the much younger daughter of his hairdresser. He wonders whether the mute boy he drives to see his mother every week from his care facility is talking to him by telepathy. He wonders if the comatose woman has been another voice in his head saying, “Help me. Let me go.”

Even after the corrupt police department, anxious to solve crimes rapidly to assuage the tourist industry, declares they have found the mother of the abandoned infant and are charging her with a crime, Erhard figures out that they are lying and proceeds, against police advice, with his own investigation. Such as it is.

Throw in Raul’s demanding papa, a rich man whose funding is discreetly concealed; the tense mother of Erhard’s mute client; the ex-reporter who now runs a bookstore/jumble shop and many more odd and colorful characters, and you can glimpse why “The Hermit” was declared the winner of the Nordic Glass Key Award.

“The Hermit” is jammed full with novelty, eccentricity, humor, philosophy, dreaded ends, and unpredictable turns. Here is a sample of Rydahl’s writing:

He pushes his way through bodies, people, faces. They come like waves crashing over him: arms, legs, flowers pounding against him, knocking him around and around so that he doesn’t know which way is what. The sea, life, and the relentlessness of humanity, the eternal flow of energy. How does one ever get a chance to become whole?

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