HamsunBook.jpgForeign film buffs may recall a 1966 black-and-white Norwegian drama named Hunger about a starving writer that talks to his shoes. It won a few awards in Europe, mostly for Best Actor. In 1890, critics hailed the book it was based on, Sult, as a groundbreaking masterpiece: the first instance of modernism in literature. It was Knut Hamsun’s first novel.

His later and best-known work, Growth of the Soil, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. If it had been adapted for the big screen, it would be a Janus film directed by Ingmar Bergman. Max Von Sydow would star as the introspective Isak, a humble settler carving a life out of the wilderness in the Northern Norway of the mid-1850s.

The scene would open on a clearing in the pristine wilderness. A lone man walks into the frame. He surveys the woods, digs in the soil and finds a stream nearby. He builds a turf hut. He tills the land and fells the trees. Walking to the nearest village with loads of firewood on his back, he returns to the hut with goats and seed. The man lives off the land and it is good.

One of the major themes in Growth of the Soil is the relationship between God, man and the soil. Bible verses abound, but Hamsun doesn’t beat you over the head with it. The wilderness is Eden, and Isak the first man.

A woman comes to the farm. Here the movie would have to deviate somewhat from the book. Dirty, disheveled but fully formed Gunnel Lindblom would play Inger. Hamsun’s Inger has a harelip, which limits her crop of suitors to none. Isak is described numerous times as a water troll, so he’s just grateful for the extra pair of hands. The couple makes the hut in the wilderness their home. Together they work the land and raise their animals. They have a child, then another. The farm flourishes.

As you would imagine, a serpent — in the guise of Oline, a poor relation of Inger’s — comes to the farmstead for a visit. She is conniving and utterly despicable, though helpful if it suits her to be. It is through Oline’s machinations and a small tragedy that Inger is introduced to the larger presence of civilization beyond her little farm.

The novel follows the seasons of approximately thirty years, focusing mostly on Isak’s family and the people who settle the land between his farm and the village. Despite the progress and hard work that have increased his wealth ten-fold, Isak remains ever the humble farmer and nurtures the land that supports him. Hamsun stresses this point more than once. The characters in the novel that honestly till the soil may experience some misfortune only to reap untold benefits later on. Those who do not live in harmony with the land they work suffer disillusionment and ruin.

One of the things I found most interesting in Growth of the Soil was Hamsun’s problem with the nomadic Lapps that walk in and out of the story following their reindeer herds. The thread of racism in his writing of them is pretty obvious.

The Lapps keep to the fringes, lurking in the dark; expose them to light and air and they don’t thrive, like vermin and maggots.

In quite a few instances throughout Growth of the Soil, Hamsun characterizes the Lapps as beggars and thieves that cause the most harm, if indirectly. He aligns them, and a man named Os-Anders in particular, with the venomous Oline. While staying on Isak’s farm she gives the nomads goat cheese, coffee and whatever else isn’t nailed down.

When [Os-Anders] came to Isak’s place, Oline dropped all her work and started gossiping with him about people in the parish, and when he left, his bag was heavy with all sorts of things.

Lapp is now considered a derogatory term for the nomadic Sami people of Northern Sweden, Norway and Finland. By a Norwegian Act of Parliament in 1902 restricting ownership of land to those who could read and write Norwegian, the country took its first step toward a hard-line governmental policy aimed at the forced assimilation of the Sami people and other ethnic groups into the Norwegian culture: Norwegianization. Much like the Native Americans, whom Hamsun also refers to in a derogatory way, the Sami language, culture and religion were restricted and discouraged.

By the time Hamsun’s first novel was translated to English in 1899 as Hunger, national pride and identity was on the rise in Norway. From then until the early 1930s, the theory of Sami inferiority gained legitimacy. With Growth of the Soil, it is evident that the opinion found fertile ground in Knut Hamsun.

I have not read Hunger, so I can’t say which book is more worth your time. I’d recommend reading Growth of the Soil anyway, as it is a romanticism of the Norwegianization policy rampant during the novel’s writing. If this theme were carried over to the film version, it would have to deviate even further from the book. Max Von Sydow would have to rescue Gunnel Lindblom from the clutches of the rapacious Os-Anders played by an actor yet to be named. Gunnel and Max would live stoically ever after until one or both of them suffer an existential dilemma.

Rating: 3 of 5