In Oslo in 1942, Jewish courier Ester is betrayed, narrowly avoiding arrest by the Gestapo. In great haste, she escapes to Sweden whilst the rest of her family is deported to Auschwitz. In Stockholm, Ester meets the resistance hero, Gerhard Falkum, who has left his little daughter and fled both the Germans and allegations that he murdered his wife, Åse, Ester’s childhood best friend. A relationship develops between them, but ends abruptly when Falkum dies in a fire.
And yet, twenty-five years later, Falkum shows up in Oslo. He wants to reconnect with his daughter Turid. But where has he been, and what is the real reason for his return? Ester stumbles across information that forces her to look closely at her past, and to revisit her war-time training to stay alive…
Written with Dahl’s trademark characterisation and clever plotting, The Courier sees one of Norway’s most critically acclaimed authors at his best, as he takes on one of the most horrifying periods of modern history. With its sophisticated storytelling and elegant prose, this stunning and compelling wartime thriller is reminiscent of the writing of John Le Carré and William Boyd.
Paul Burke: The Courier is a stand-alone novel, how does that compare to writing a series?
Kjell Ola Dahl: Writing a series means the die is cast in some respects. When telling a new story in an established series, the protagonist is already more or less defined, but of course he or she can go through some changes from book to book. So, even though I feel I have to remain loyal to the character, I’m still curious enough to place them in demanding situations – just to see how he or she reacts.
Having the personality more or less is defined beforehand means the character in a way shapes the story. Writing a stand-alone on the other hand means creating new characters from scratch, which is very inspiring, especially in a historical novel like The Courier, in which I had to make the characters fit three different eras. The forties, the sixties and the present day are totally different in terms of morality, aesthetics, culture and manners. In addition, each character’s personality matures over the years. I found the challenge of changing between time periods very interesting.
PB: Sjowall and Wahloo were an influence for you. Do you think you are an inspiration for a new generation of Nordic noir/crime writers?
KOD: Yes and no. When I read some new authors I recognise aspects of my own work. But crime fiction covers many subgenres, and at different times some are more popular than others. I belong to the old school, which means that I like to maintain a certain realism in my books, and this excludes one of today’s trends – which leans towards the spectacular, and towards very innovative serial killers. I prefer to put my characters in realistic but demanding situations, and I do so because I want readers to identify with these people, and I want to explore myself and my writing.
PB: World War II has an obvious allure for writers. Was it an irresistible attraction for you too?
KOD: The occupation in Norway – the battles, the resistance movement and the rise and fall of the Nazi party – offers a great number of fascinating stories. And from a historical point of view, WWII has had an incredible impact on modern times. For example, during the war, the resistance movement was planning the politics that were going to hold sway after the war. The aftermath of WWII defined the balance of power in the world for years to come. Debates are still going on in Norway about the Norwegian Holocaust, and the conflicts between the various resistance groups. Both my parents were teenagers during WWII and they always told me stories from that time. I have used this inspiration in a couple of novels now, so yes, WWII does have an irresistible attraction for me.
PB: Can you tell us a little bit about the political situation that overhangs the novel?
KOD: In April 1940, during the German invasion, German diplomats tried to convince the Norwegian government and King Haakon to surrender. Neither the king nor the government would accept the German demands and they escaped to England. The war continued and the last battles between Norwegian and German troops took place in June 1940. Before this, though, on the same April day the legal government and the king escaped, Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the Norwegian Nazi party – NS – took power in a coup. He declared himself National Führer and he said he was establishing a new government, and that the German soldiers had come to rescue Norway from British invasion. He said that all resistance against Germany would be considered a criminal act. Hitler didn’t like Quisling’s coup. He sent General Josef Terboven to be Reichckommissar in Norway. Terboven took power with Quisling as his local mouthpiece. From then on all political parties apart from NS were prohibited.
The resistance movement had started early in April 1940. And in the beginning they didn’t engage in violence; they mostly worked building networks and fighting censorship by distributing news from London (which Ester does at the start of The Courier). In 1942, two important things happened. First, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Then Norwegian communists started military resistance. Their idea was that everything that could make trouble for the Germans – even in Norway – while the Germans were marching east was a good thing for international working-class solidarity. They killed important Nazis and took violent action against train lines and important German factories and establishments in Norway. They were looked upon as heroes by the common people but were labelled terrorists by the Germans. Later these militaristic actions were also debated within the resistance movement itself, mainly because the Germans struck back. Each time the Norwegian communists took action, the Germans took innocent civilians as hostages and then killed them.
The other important thing that happened in 1942 was the Norwegian Holocaust. In October all Jewish men were arrested and placed in a concentration camp just outside the city of Tønsberg. German soldiers were not involved in these arrests; they were made by the Norwegian STAPO (state police) and HIRDEN, the militant division of the NS party. One month later, on 26 November 1942, all the Jews remaining in Norway were arrested and sent to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. They were sent by sea, on board a German ship – the Donau. In the meantime, though, hundreds of Jews managed to escape. Ester was one of them.
PB: When writing The Courier, did you imagine how you might react in the circumstances the characters find themselves in the novel?
KOD: Yes and no. All the main characters in The Courier are inspired by real people. At the same time, this story is fiction – even if many incidents are inspired by real events. Being a writer, I have to be able to believe in my characters. So I always explore how I would react in certain situations and then judge whether the actual character would react the same way or differently. One part of writing fiction like this is learning to know your characters.
PB: Early in The Courier Ester is almost caught by the Nazis while delivering newspapers. What is the importance of these daily acts of defiance and resistance under dictatorship?
KOD: The situation when Ester is almost caught is inspired by a real incident. The way ordinary people resisted the Nazis took many forms. There were the small signs, such as wearing red woollen caps (referring to a British navy attack on the German warship Altmark in Jøssingfjord in February 1940, when Norway still was a neutral country), or wearing a paper clip on your sleeve, to show you were a patriot. There was also more violent action, like bombings and killings. Distribution of uncensored news was also very important resistance work. In April 1940 the Nazis took control of all Norwegian newspapers and the national broadcaster. Winning the propaganda war was the central part of Josef Goebbels’ strategy. Shortly after the German invasion it was forbidden to listen to, or be in possession of a radio. In Norwegian papers one read about German victories on all fronts, but the truth was different. Some people managed to hide away their radios, and secretly listened to the news from London. This news was also distributed in illegal papers by ordinary people, ensuring that the spirit of freedom was maintained. In 1942 anyone doing this work faced the death penalty.
PB: What kind of scar/positive effects do you think occupation had on the development of modern Norway?
KOD: As I said earlier, one important dimension of the resistance during the war was planning the peace. That was a wise strategy but also left scars. In the north of Norway, along the border with the Soviet Union, there has always been a friendly atmosphere between Norwegians and Russians. A lot of important resistance work was done in this borderland, and some of the greatest resistance soldiers were on the political left. Many of these heroes were declared persona non grata after the war. The Allies and the Soviets divided the world between them. Norway was on the Western side and became an important member of NATO. The leftists were regarded with suspicion even though they had been the greatest patriots.
Another lasting effect has been left by the Norwegian Holocaust, and the fact that it was planned and organised by Norwegians. Last year there was a big debate about what the resistance knew before the Holocaust and if they could have done more to save the Jews who died in the gas chambers.
Shortly after the war there was a big legal case against wartime collaborators. Quisling received the death penalty and was shot. But the trials took time, people started to forgive and forget, and many major collaborators escaped punishment. On the other hand, shortly after the war, hatred and the need for revenge held sway. Women who had been dating German soldiers were arrested, their hair was cut and many of them were sent to Germany. Their children were the biggest losers. Only one year ago the government gave these children an official pardon.
PB: Life still had to go on during the war, both for individuals and governments – an aspect of this is realpolitik. How do you see the relationship between neutral Sweden and occupied Norway?
KOD: Sweden during WWII is a fascinating topic. Sweden is Norway’s neighbour and old pal. Both Norway and Sweden tried to remain neutral at the beginning of the war. But Hitler did not trust Norwegian neutrality and started operation Weserübung, which included the occupation of Norway. Sweden worked hard to remain neutral throughout WWII. So, on the one hand the Swedish authorities let Hitler use Swedish railways to transport the German army north to attack Norway and the city of Narvik. At the same time, Stockholm was an important place for Norwegian refugees and the Norwegian resistance. As I describe in The Courier, the Swedes organised refugee camps for people fleeing Norway. And the legal Norwegian government had important offices in Stockholm. In 1941, a Norwegian military office was established in Stockholm, and they organised an intelligence service (the XU) and worked on the resistance. (Ester works at this office in the novel.) Stockholm was also an important transit city for refugees and saboteurs going to England and Scotland. But Sweden stressed its neutrality and worked hard to keep that balance.
PB: More generally, do you see crime fiction as a way of exploring the social, economic and political character of a nation?
KOD: I think all literature is able to explore the character of a nation, but crime fiction has some advantages. This is because a focus on crime in fact is a way to explore how to behave in society. Crime examines the mechanisms of power in a society, how this society reacts to crime and how a society is able to cope with it. This is about politics, power, and people and their culture. I don’t think crime fiction automatically explores the character of a society, but it offers particular opportunities to do so, if the writer is aware of what he or she is doing, and if the writer wants to conduct that exploration.
PB: War is the ultimate test of humanity, it brings out the best and the worst in people. The Courier examines friendship, human frailty and betrayal. Is exploring what makes people tick at the heart of your fiction?
KOD: You are right, war is a test of humanity. Today the culture of war is undergoing a troubling change. Rape and sexual crimes are used to supress people and keep them afraid. This might be slightly different from WWII, but it is a fact that the German occupiers used torture, betrayal and brutal killings to keep power and supress people. Committing crime is about crossing boundaries and making choices; but I don’t think it can be explained simply as a choice between obeying orders or practising one’s free will. Everyone has their own personal history, and the reasons for one’s acts today can be partly explained by things that have happened before. I suppose this is a Freudian attitude. That is why I wanted to write The Courier in different timeframes, because the characters always carry their past with them. So I guess the answer is yes, exploring what makes people tick is important to me.
PB: Considering the idea of ‘good and evil’, The Courier reveals how people can act virtuously in one way but hide a terrible darkness for decades. Is there a little of the Jekyll and Hyde about all of us?
KOD: I wouldn’t put it that way. Mr Hyde is an extreme character. I am not sure all people are so extreme or able to act so extremely, but I do believe in the Freudian way of regarding people and their actions. No one is all good or all bad. There are both sides in all of us. And people are able to survive and overcome extremely bad situations. And part of that, I think, is hiding and supressing terrible darkness.
PB: Are you Ester’s champion? It feels like her story is representative of a tragic reality for many, particularly Jewish families, that simply was never addressed; no justice ever obtained. Is time a healer or do we need the truth to be comfortable with the past?
KOD: Ester is mainly inspired by a man I once knew. He was a Jew, and like Ester he escaped to Sweden before the Holocaust. He went from Sweden to Scotland and was trained to become a saboteur. From that time on he was an active soldier, operating behind enemy lines. What was most inspiring about him was that in his own eyes he was not a victim – even though he suffered great losses. His mother and father were transported to Germany and killed during the war. His family’s belongings were taken – stolen – by the Nazis. He was a man with many secrets, but he became my friend. And I am certain the only way to know this man was to know his history. I think time can heal many wounds, but the only way to not let history repeat itself is to know the truth of the past.
PB: The Courier personalises the global issues of war (occupation, genocide, ideology). Is this how fiction can add to our understanding of history?
KOD: Fiction is about staging and telling stories that people can identify with. One part of the magic of fiction is that there are hundreds of stories to tell about the same incident. Telling stories has always been part of understanding history. This is confirmed by most folklore, and by cultural classics such as the Viking sagas.
PB: The Courier deals with the murder of Åse in the midst of war but Ester’s family are victims of the Holocaust, death is everywhere (you work this into the plot). Why is one murder important?
KOD: The murder of Åse is important to the characters in the story, because she was a woman they cared about. Had she been killed in a bomb attack or some other violent wartime incident, her death would have an explanation they could accept. But Åse’s death is a mystery. And her death has life-long consequences for the characters involved, like her daughter, her daughter’s father and the friends who took care of her daughter as she grew up.
PB: The Courier feels like an inspired piece of writing, I suspect a lot of hard work too, but did it feel like that when you were writing it?
KOD: I did work with this story for a long time as a side project, without being able to start it properly. For most of that time I did research. I had the inspiration, but I had the wrong focus for a long time – Ester was a less important character. When I started to focus on her, the story was suddenly there, right before me – and I wrote very quickly after that.
PB: What are you currently reading? Is there a writer/novel you would recommend to our readers?
KOD: If you were to see my shelves, you wouldn’t ask that question. I am addicted to reading, and usually read many books at the same time. My taste in books is like my taste in food: I am curious, open to new things and generally positive. But as with food, I have my favourite books and return to them often. I like reads that give me unforgettable characters described in sophisticated language. Now, looking at my shelves, I have decided to start reading Austerlitz by WG Sebald once again. I recommend your readers do the same.
Our thanks to both Kjell and Paul for this excellent and informative Q&A.
The Courier by Kjell Ola Dahl
Orenda Books 9781912374434 pbk Mar 2019