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Cruel intentions

The Exception A Novel Christian Jungersen Translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 506 pp., $26

July 01, 2007|Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind, a Los Angeles-based reviewer, was a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle's Balakian award for excellence.

IT'S possible that Christian Jungersen's second novel, a bestseller across Europe and a prizewinner in the author's native Denmark, is a heck of a thriller in its original language. American readers who don't speak Danish will never know, dependent as we are on an English-language version so stolidly unsuspenseful that it's hard to believe the edition's flaws are the fault of the translator.

Reading in translation, suggested the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, is like kissing through a handkerchief. Yet the word's literal meaning, "carry across," suggests that, with a little artistry, such delicate barriers can be finessed. Certainly, Americans -- who seem to have an endless appetite for Scandinavian crime novels -- are more than forgiving when it comes to reading these works in translation. The Norwegian writer Karin Fossum, for instance, and the Swedish authors Henning Mankell and Helene Tursten, all familiar in this country, have a firm grasp on the mechanics of suspense. And then there is the fine Danish novelist Peter Hoeg, whose passionate, crystalline thrillers, beginning with the blockbuster "Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1993), have earned a dedicated audience here.

The translation problems in "The Exception" run deeper than its prose, which, as far as I can tell, has been transformed ably enough into English by Anna Paterson, who has distinguished herself as a translator for more than a decade. The novel suffers from a failure to carry across nuances of Danish culture, character and mood -- all the while hammering away at the unsurprising revelation that ordinary, well-intentioned office workers are as susceptible to cruel instincts as mass murderers.

Jungersen intersects the capacity for individual evil with genocidal impulses in the modest offices of a nonprofit organization in central Copenhagen. Loosely modeled on a real institution, the fictional Danish Center for Information on Genocide, or DCIG for short, relies on both government and private funding to dispense data to researchers and aid groups in Denmark and abroad.

In addition to the center's tirelessly networking and frequently absent chief, the office is staffed by four women. They are Iben, the information officer, and Malene, the project manager, both single women in their late 20s; and Anne-Lise, the librarian, and Camilla, a secretary, each around 40 and married with children.

Without a trace of cynicism or parody, Jungersen presents the DCIG as an auspicious place for idealistic young women like Iben and Malene to help repair the world. They genuinely believe they are doing this, as they bustle about, organizing exhibitions and writing articles for Genocide News about atrocities committed in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Rwanda. In their spare time, they watch documentaries about Ugandan development projects or settle in with a dinner of microwaved cod to pore over Raul Hilberg's "The Destruction of the European Jews."

The office's exquisitely earnest atmosphere is shattered when Iben and Malene begin receiving death threats via e-mail. At first, the women believe the messages are coming from a Serbian war criminal whose activities they've been tracking. But slowly, all four colleagues begin to suspect one another, as their smoldering petty rivalries and subtle bullying ignite into full-blown paranoid hatred.

The dispassionate, third-person narration shifts focus frequently as Jungersen investigates each woman's back-story. Camilla endured an abusive childhood and remains haunted by a series of violent sexual relationships. Anne-Lise, who suffers daily humiliation and ostracism at the hands of her three office mates, is beset by low self-esteem. Malene suffers from steadily debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, and Iben, most dramatic of all, recently survived a hostage crisis while serving on an aid mission in Kenya.

Even after carefully compiling these traumas and sorrows, Jungersen fails to make any of his characters remotely interesting or likable. This turns out to be something of a deal breaker, because without the reader's emotional investment, this thriller fails to thrill. Its repetitious Big Idea about the fluidity of identity -- the notion that humanitarians can be as malicious as the genocidal criminals they study -- is less shocking than galumphingly obvious.

In the end, in any language, doesn't it all come down to style? With regard to every aspect of Jungersen's book, I find myself recalling contemporary fiction that addresses the same themes with far more flair. For the tragicomedy of office culture, there is Joshua Ferris' affecting and witty "Then We Came to the End." For the uses and abuses of Holocaust studies, there is the angry satire in Tova Reich's "My Holocaust" and Gary Shteyngart's "Absurdistan."

And there are those steady shipments of thoughtful, character-driven Scandinavian crime novels and police procedurals, each new book wiser and more melancholy, it often seems, than the last. In comparison, for all its ambitious length and scope, "The Exception" seems small, spiritless and hollow.

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