On Easter Sunday, Denmark awoke to the news that one of its most prolific, influential, and best-loved writers had passed away after a long illness. Klaus Rifbjerg (born 1931) debuted as a poet in 1956, and authored some 175 works: novels, plays, collections of poetry and short stories, screenplays and many other genres. He was particularly influential as a pioneer of modernism in Danish poetry. His first novel, Den kroniske uskyld (1958), is still recognised as one of his masterpieces.
Den kroniske uskyld is narrated by Janus Tolne, a Copenhagen schoolboy whose life is enlivened by the arrival of a new friend, Tore Riemer. Through Janus’ eyes, we catch glimpses of life under the German occupation of Denmark (1940-45), but his main preoccupation is his beloved Tore and, by extension, Tore’s girlfriend Helle. Locked in a chaste ménage à trois with this glamorous couple, Janus navigates his way through the waters of teenage firsts: girls, drinking, graduating from high school. As readers, we live this perplexing and, at times mortifying process of transformation along with Janus. But we know, too, perhaps before Janus does, that Tore and Helle are caught in some strange stasis, trapped in a web spun by Helle’s monstrous mother. As the title of the novel suggests, their innocence seems to be a chronic and terminal condition.
With his translation, entitled Terminal Innocence, Irish translator and author Paul Larkin has captured the playfulness of Rifbjerg’s language in this novel, as well as his ability to capture the joy of the everyday and generate fresh perspectives on existence. Den kroniske uskyld has been translated into eight languages, including French, German, Polish and Czech, but it has not been available in English until now – perhaps because of the challenges posed for the translator by the fresh, rebellious, exuberant voice of Rifbjerg’s narrator.
While Rifbjerg did not live to see his debut novel published in English, Paul Larkin discussed the translation with him in person. Paul’s account of their meetings is available in his essay ‘The Day I Met Klaus Rifbjerg’ (links to academia.edu – login may be required).
Terminal Innocence is available at all good bookstores.