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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Black Signs

Lars Mørch Finborud

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Title: The Black Signs
Author: Lars Mørch Finborud
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Black Signs - US
The Black Signs - UK
The Black Signs - Canada
  • Norwegian title: De svarte skiltene
  • Translated by Becky Crook

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious and clever, quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Black Signs is presented in two parts. The first is a relatively short introductory section, narrated by a lawyer charged with inventorying an estate, its owner having been declared "officially disappeared" after nothing had been heard from (and bills had gone unpaid) for the past six months. The house proves difficult to get into -- and turns out to be packed to the rafters with black signs -- similar to the blue signs affixed to buildings throughout Oslo (and in many other cities), briefly describing "cultural-historical facts" about famous local residents of yesteryear. These black signs, however, tell a different story:

They told about the history that we would most wish to forget and to separate ourselves from. That which was despised. Shameful. Illegal. Undervalued. Aggrieved. Unsightly. Petty. Untrue. Embarrassing. The black signs proposed an alternative history in opposition to the official version. They were a complaint. A protesting whine.
       And there were a lot of them. A ton of them. So many that practically the entire house is filled with them, the house itself held up only by the piles of signs.
       Almost the only other thing the lawyer finds in the house is a sort of catalogue. It consists of a collection of what appear to be letters, each addressed to a 'Dear Gustimoldo', as well as listings, apparently from a much larger index, of odds and ends here called 'jutegnask'. The second part of The Black Signs -- the bulk of the book -- then reproduces this catalogue.
       The owner of the estate is an unnamed grandson of a famous woman who lived to be over 100 and only recently died, referred to only as 'Grandma'. The person he writes these letters to is a friend of his from the neighborhood, a provocateur who seems to be a bit unhinged and who has fled the scene; for a while he apparently sent postcards to the grandson, but for ages now the writer hasn't heard from him. The letters have gone unanswered -- and, it would seem, they have gone unsent, too. But in them the heir and writer fills in the background: about his grandmother, about his friendship with the missing Gustimoldo, about their escapades, and about the mysterious black signs.
       Grandma was famous -- and, more importantly, she seems to have known everyone who was anyone. Artists, especially, but others as well. She's a Zelig-like figure: "She adapted to whoever was in her presence". At age 11 she can pass for 24, at age ninety people take her for thirty.
       Most significantly:
Grandma is, by far, the undisputed pioneer and authority within the field of jutegnask.
       She collected a vast amount of jutegnask -- this is what filled the house previously, and this is what her grandson auctions off to finance the making of the vast number of black signs that now fill the house.
       It's Gustimoldo who provided the most detailed explanations of what 'jutegnask' is:
Jutegnask are animate art relics that linger in the indefinable realm between art and rubbish. Non-art-art = jutegnask. The name refers to all objects within the artistic production which are not defined as artwork by the artist himself.
       The not-quite-detritus Grandma collected ranges from "leftover broccoli spätzle, that Richard Wagner's widow Cosima served Grandma in Bayreuth in 1919" to a 1996 taxi receipt from Dag Solstad to a 1929 milk carton with a Félix Fénéon three-line novella dedicated to Grandma on it to: "Casino chips from Grandma and [André] Malraux' romantic getaway in Monaco" in 1951.
       The heir auctions these off, using the proceeds to finance the black signs which gradually fill the house -- soon to overflowing. All the while he pleads for his co-conspirator to return and help bring their grand project to its final glorious end, as their plan was to affix these black signs wherever possible (something that he can't do by himself, even as he noisily practices the quickest and most durable methods). As the house fills, his desperation grows: "The only thing I have left are the black signs" he moans, even as he can't help himself from commissioning more.
       Eventually, he has a fill of black signs covering past misdeeds and turns towards the future:
The future's black history is endless; let us be the first to write it.
       It is a bleak, dark vision -- and it is one that literally overwhelms the writer. We know from the conclusion of the short introductory section what the lawyer feels compelled to do about this legacy, and the catalogue certainly justifies his actions.
       Lists of jutegnask -- brief descriptions of a few lines -- are interspersed in the catalogue, and make for some comic relief. Finborud has good fun with the celebrity detritus Grandma accumulates (and, often, the circumstances in which she came to it), though the name-dropping can get to be a bit much. Still, it's a good and clever selection of names that are cut above what one might expect a young author to assemble, with only a few small missteps along the way.
       The black signs, and how they fill the house, are also a nice, dark idea, well-developed. The missing Gustimoldo, on the other hand, is a less successful figure: defined, in his absence, entirely by the writer and his recollections of some of the zany (and often unpleasant) things they got up to, he is a pillar for the writer, his one remaining bastion of a sort of hope, desperately clung to, but it's the one layer of the novel that, as is, isn't an entirely comfortable fit.
       The Black Signs is a well-crafted and inventive story, with almost too many clever ideas threatening to sidetrack the story -- indulging in the jutegnask-conceptions, in particular, proves hard to resist. But Finborud shows a good command of his story, and both his narrators, first the lawyer and then the letter-writing heir -- have authoritative voices. The dark project, too, is an inspired one; only Gustimoldo fails to fully finds his place.
       A lively, entertaining read, and good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 December 2014

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The Black Signs: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Lars Mørch Finborud was born in 1980.

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© 2014-2015 the complete review

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