The recipe is simple—take four ounces of George Lucas, add four ounces of Stieg Larson, blend in a a dash of Tolkien and a pinch of Baudelaire. Stir well et voila, you have Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin’s STRINDBERG STAR. Billed as an international bestseller, this is a ponderous novel indeed. Set in Falun, Sweden, it opens with an excruciatingly laboured account of cave diving during which a diver named Eric Hall, happened upon a dead body clutching an ankh. On the walls of the cave he also finds words alluding to Norse mythology. His discovery earns him a couple of mentions in the local press, but that is all too brief for his taste. Feeling neglected, he pesters university professor Don Titelman, a former psychiatrist turned historian, to discuss his finds.
Titelman, he of the he of the “yidish noz that stuck out from his face like a broken finger”,is a frail man whose childhood summers spent in the company of his Jewish grandmother seem to have shaped his life. Grandma is a SHOAH survivor Nazi doctors experimented upon in Ravensbruck. Hearing about her experiences at the concentration camp and delving into the Nazi paraphernalia she inexplicably keeps nearby, he develops chronic anxiety. It is not puzzling g that he chooses to become a doctor, but it is confusing to leave the interval between summers at his YidishBubbe‘s and and adulthood to the reader’s imagination. There seems to be an attempt to explain why he abandons psychiatry—he has a nervous breakdown after an encounter with Neo-Nazis. But Wallentin leaves to many responsibilities to the reader whom he trusts to infer that it the breakdown makes it logical for Titelman to veer from psychiatry onto an academic career in the field of religious symbology.
To imbue the main character with a fatal flaw is part of an age old formula—antiheroes are more lovable than perfect heroes, I suppose. But the flaw with which Wallentin burdens Titelman, is a lalapalooza of a drug addiction that makes eaves the reader wonder just how long can the frail, forty-something Titelman, who hardly ever seems to eat—there is mention of a couple of spartan meals in the entire novel—function.
Titelman moves in a vacuum. He has no friends, other than a sidekick, Eva Strand, he acquires after he becomes a suspect in Eric Hall’s murder. He has a sister, a computer geek conveniently endowed with the gift to hack into banks and railroad accounts. She is, as most of the plot, unsubstantial.
Unsubstantial or not, off trots Titelman, clutching a black bag that contains an astonishing array of controlled substances and that goes with him, literally, to hell and back. Throughout the four hundred and seventy pages of the novel, up Swedish hill, German dale, and the frozen expanse of Antarctica, he unwillingly keeps company with villainous Germans—who might or might not be Nazis– intent in finding the opening to the underworld. So strenuous are his adventures that is that it is no surprise that his gobbling of elf-prescribed Ritalin, Xanax, Clonazepam and other drugs escalates. Does he go into a comma? Certainly not. The reader might, though.