May 8, 2012 by markstani
I don’t mind admitting, I was initially drawn to Knud Romer’s Nothing But Fear (pub. Serpents’ Tail) after learning of the author’s starring role in Lars Von Trier’s eccentric and controversial 1998 movie, The Idiots.
Romer’s debut novel couldn’t be more different. While ‘The Idiots’ was brash, crass and brilliant in a wholly unorthodox kind of way, ‘Nothing To Fear’ is a lovely, tender little book which weaves its tale of post-War strife in a small Danish town with rare subtlety.
In this autobiographical novel, Romer returns to his childhood growing up in Nykobing, a small Danish town on the remote island of Falster in the 1960s:
Nykobing is a town that is so small that its beginning is its end. If you are in it, you cannot get out – and if you outside, you cannot get in. You pass right through it, and the only trace the town leaves is on your clothes – the smell of manure in summer and sugar beet in winter. This is where I was born in 1960, and it was the closest I could come to not being at all.
The scars of the War are far from healed, and a hatred of Germans still lingers. No matter that Knud’s mother conspired with her then boyfriend Horst to resist the Nazis, nor that Horst was eventually executed for his subversion: she is German, and thus she, and by extension her family, are horribly shunned.
The baker was a few streets further down on Enighedsvej, and there was a moment’s hush when we walked through the door and people stared at us and turned away. We stood in a queue that grew longer and longer, and it was never our turn. Mother might say, ‘Excuse me?’ and maybe raise a faint hand, but no-one responded, and so it went on until the girls behind the counter couldn’t keep it up any longer and sniggered, exchanging glances with the others in the shop, and asked Mother what it was she wanted.
Knud is mercilessly bullied at school, and his Danish father, a once prominent, respected citizen of Nykobing, sees his authority gradually stripped to nothing. Cut off by the world outside their door, and marooned with ailing grandparents for whom the hell of War still cuts deep for more tangible reasons, Knud’s parents seek solace in their old patriotic traditions, while Knud just dreams the North Sea waves will one day come and wash away Falster for good.
‘Nothing But Fear’ is a moving story of small-town prejudice, told in simple and non-judgemental prose and smartly translated from its original Danish by John Mason. Quite unlike ‘The Idiots’, this is no headline act. But its restrained beauty sings softly from its pages and suggests Romer’s true calling may lie away from the big screen.