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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Undtagelsen – The Exception – a psychological thriller for a cynical Denmark?

Undtagelsen – The Exception

If anything could illustrate how far removed modern day Denmark is from the world of Hans Christian Andersen, and indeed from Soren Kierkegaard, then this brilliantly written novel is it. I have the good fortune of being able to read Christian Jungersen’s goosebump inducing thriller in the original Danish version and it will be interesting to see how the book has been translated into English.
Traditionally, Danes move between a world of hygge (comfort or cosiness) and a fierce commitment to the rights of the individual, but where that individual must take his or her contribution to society very seriously. It is no accident that the term ombudsman comes from an old Nordic word umboð which carries both a sense of a civic duty and a civil right. On the other hand, the notion of an individual being able to liberate themselves by exercising a sacred duty to face their own ultimate truth, and thereby take control of their lives, is the essence of Søren Kierkegaard’s belief. Yet, author Christian Jungersen fillets Danish hygge and existentialism apart with surgical efficiency and drops both of them into the dustbin of history.
With his writer’s scalpel, Jungersen marks the psychological fault lines of Danish hygge for what it probably always was once the Danes became affluent - a private affair, full of of mood lighting and heavy doors closed to the world outside. The Exception portrays a Denmark suffering from a multiple personality crisis and the book carries a very clear message that, given the right circumstances, any Dane, any human, is a mass murderer just waiting for the correct roll call. Not one major character in the book is able to break the shackles of their own brilliantly described psychoses and perform the heroic deed necessary to rescue all the protagonists from the quickening vortex which eventually drags them all under. Even where we are led to believe that a breakthrough has been made, Jungersen, quickly disabuses the reader of any illusions they might have had in this regard.
Many readers will already know that the book has become widely sold right across Europe and, indeed, its narrative embraces a large swathe of Europe and further afield. The plot centres around four women, Iben, Malene, Camilla and Anna-Lise, who work at the Danish Centre for Information on Genocide. The centre is state funded and the author’s great achievement is to transform this potentially stultifying scenario into a battlefield of intrigue and emotions. He does this by bringing the genocide which the centre investigates into the very lives of the four main characters themselves. When two of them, Iben and Malene, start receiving death threats, they suspect that Mirko Zigic – a Serbian torturer and war criminal – is stalking them. These suspicions, however, very soon turn into suspicion of each other. There is no hygge anymore and no belief in the sanctity of the individual. What an irony in a centre which is supposed to exist to reaffirm that very gift. This is the essence of the book’s message; that once surface pleasantries are scratched away, we all revert to basic animal instincts. This is the why and how of genocide and now it is happening in an office near you. It is in your office. In your face.
The immediate suspect for the death threats is the recently recruited Anna-Lise who finds, as many before her have found, great difficulty in breaking in to an already well established set of office relationships. Jungersen’s description of the besetting and cruel isolation of Anna-Lise, for her failure to get “on message”, is quite the most disturbing depiction of workplace bullying that I have ever read. It is all the more convincing because Anna-Lise is a not particularly sympathetic character and those conspiring against her are youngish, cool and trendy. Anna-Lise is not just sent to Coventry, she is sent to that dark warren of self doubt and paranoia which Kafka always warned us about. The depiction of Anna-Lise’s annihilation is like reading a dark Jacobean tragedy with the difference that the potential killers are the office colleagues who sit around you and conspire to erase your personality. These are perverse potential killers who are supposed to be working against genocide. And there is no escape.
The greatest potential heroine in the novel, Iben, eventually breaks ranks and offers support to her colleague but we then find that she may be the real culprit behind the death threats. In fact, the reader is very skilfully led to believe that each of the four main characters in turn might possibly have been the person sending the death threats and it is the psychoanalysis of these characters that tells us that no one is really innocent, either in this particular story, or in the world at large. Of course one of the main objections to psychoanalysis is that disparate elements of the subconscious can be used to prove, or disprove, just about anything. Nor does it readily accept socio-economic reasons for trauma and the splitting of personalities. Freud, for example, spent very little time analysing the rising power of the Nazi party when examining the bad dreams that his middle class Jewish patients were having.
Similarly, The Exception spends a lot of time discussing the reasons why seemingly ordinary people can suddenly allow themselves to become part of a murder machine. Iben’s frantic reports on the Psychology of Evil are very accurate on the way humans are prone to act in groups and Jungersen has done a vast amount of research in order to give her documents the vicious stamp of authority. The example is given of a German citizen who succumbs to the group pressure to give a Heil Hitler salute and then eventually reconciles himself to this action, so as to stop feeling bad about it, but then of course the ground is laid for further nazi actions. The example is a telling one but the overwhelming amount of detail endangers the narrative. After many many graphic descriptions of cases of torture in the book, do we really need to be told that Serbian captors forced their prisoners to bite the testicles off their children’s bodies?
The key moment in the story, for me, is where Iben forces herself to use her own knowledge and research into social intimidation to admit that this is exactly what her own group has been doing to poor Anna-Lise who just wanted a nice hyggelig job as a librarian. Here is a truly Kierkegaardian either/or moment, where the hot breath of seconds counts down the decision to either make an individual stand, or to continue to cleave to the group. It is a “test”, a “trial”, of one of the most important characteristics a human being can possess. Iben does the honourable thing and the audience lets out a gasp of relief. There is catharsis. We know that Iben may yet be killed but she has grasped that moment of transcendence where mere mortals can reach beyond their own powers to achieve immortality. Except that there is no relief. Iben quickly descends into the nightmare world of a mental breakdown and her internal monologue (or perhaps dialogue) reveals that she could well have been the one who sent threats, switched pills, filled containers with blood and imposed a reign of terror in the office. Yet right to the violent end, we are never sure who was sending the death threats
Perhaps the author wants the characters and readers to resolve the issue themselves as is the post modern way. Or perhaps he truly wishes to emphasise the absence of heroes and clear thinkers in today’s world. In either scenario, the effect is the same. The reader, certainly on first reading, cannot be sure who the real villain is and the issue is darkened still further when the Serbian torturers actually do appear, which raises the question as to who was in touch with them and how. At first the knife edge of doubt works to the book’s advantage but by the end it becomes a real weakness. Maybe this is a suitable ending in secular, privatised Denmark where God is not just offstage but doesn’t even have a walk on part. It is my view, however, that Jungersen’s studied ambivalence has prevented what is an outstanding novel from becoming a masterpiece which says something very profound; not just about Danish society but about Western society in general where millions upon millions of people feel that they are at a spiritual and moral dead end. They know it and cannot face it unless they can look at it from all angles and have a justification for each one. The story is bound by the same multiple angst which affects its characters so dramatically.
For all that, The Exception is a tour de force examination of the dark side of human relationships. It truly is, “unputdownable”.

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