Sunday, November 18, 2007

Elling review

Elling is Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjørnsen's (pictured below) bestselling novel, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2001. It' the heartwarming story of two mentally disturbed people, Elling and Kjell Bjarne, who have been released from their rehabilitation center and given a flat in Oslo to attempt a life of normalcy. Elling and Bjarne are as different as chalk and cheese. If one is sensitive to the point of abnormality, the other is loud and stocky. The novel is narrated by Elling, the anxious one, who has never quite gotten past his mother's death, with whom he shared a nearly Oedipal connection.

He and Bjarne are admitted to the same rehabilitation center--the Broynes--and come to occupy the same room. Elling regales Bjarne, who has a preternatural tendency for vocal sex, with tales of sexual prowess. When in truth, he can hardly find it within himself to even approach a woman. When the reality comes to the fore, instead of self-righteous posturing, Bjarne, in his inimitable style, asks Elling not to discontinue his randy tales. It is these anticlimactic revelations that bind this tale and supply it its emotional center. A trip to a restaurant becomes a life-affirming exercise in self-rejuvenation. There is also tender comedy lurking behind the scenes, as in Elling's urinary distress when closeted with a stranger. Frank from the Oslo City Council is supposed to watch over them, and the novel finds many instances to contrast his studied fastidiousness with the simpletons' love of life.

And indeed, who else should enter their lives but a damsel in distress? Reidun Nordsletten (Elling has an irritating, though funny propensity to address everyone every time by their full names) is pregnant and stays in the same building as Elling and Bjarne. What starts as a rescue operation turns into an unlikely friendship for Elling and a fulfilling relationship for Bjarne. Ambjorsen is adept at amalgamating the funny and the sublime. Elling, who fancies himself a "faceless, underground artist," offers us interesting and unabashedly personal insights into topics as diverse as Edward Munch and the poetry of a gravid tummy.

More than anything else, Elling offers us a fascinating peek into the minds of the mentally unstable. Are they abnormal people looking into a normal world, or is it the other way around? Who defines normal anyway? Is a man who loses his mind after his mother's death abnormal, or merely a paragon of excessive love? We'd never know.

Were you one of those who fell helplessly in love with the admirable Forrest Gump? Well, Elling is similar territory and if you like your tales simple and touching, pick this one up.

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