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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Hagar Olsson

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To purchase Chitambo

Title: Chitambo
Author: Hagar Olsson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1933 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 203 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Chitambo - US
Chitambo - UK
Chitambo - Canada
  • Swedish title: Chitambo
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Sarah Death

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strong character-portraits, nicely presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Swedish-writing Finnish author Hagar Olsson's Chitambo describes the childhood and coming of age of a young woman in Finland around the turn of the twentieth century. The narrator is born, like the author, in 1893 -- the year: "when Fridtjof Nansen set out on his world-famous voyage to the North Pole aboard the Fram", inspiring her father, Mr Dreary, to want to name the newborn 'Fram' and leading to a dispute at the christening that was finally settled with the child being named 'Vega' -- to appease the father -- and the much more traditional 'Maria', as the mother wished. It leads to her bifurcated existence:

To show their respect for Mr Dreary, his cronies used the name Vega, while my mother's friends kept strictly to Maria. Some people avoided calling me by name at all.
     For me, it was a tragic situation. I was dimly aware that a battle for my soul was underway and that the two names symbolised unknown forces that seemed set on ripping apart my embryonic and anxiety-ridden self, which knew neither its own foundation nor the name of its own being.
       She is raised in these two different worlds: in the domestic one (extending also to school), as Maria, she is limited to typical women's roles -- cleaning house and the like:
I slept my way through life in that world. A burden weighed on my body and my soul. I felt tormented by my clothes, my plaits, my duties.
       But she also enjoys another world, little Vega spending time with her father in his shop. He's an odd character -- "He had imagination, Mr Dreary, but of a rather singular kind" -- but one well-suited to a child's imagination. As the mature Vega recalls:
Everyone knows how unassuming Mr Dreary's shop was, but for me it was the world. Just that: 'the world', in the sense one might use the world of discovering a world.
       For a long time Vega imagines she might be included in her father's fantastical plans, only to find herself, once adolescent, crushingly dismissed as unfit: "Womenfolk don't understand that kind of thing". Still, he imbued her with enough of an adventurous and restless spirit that she won't accept simply falling back into the traditional women's roles -- despite the best efforts of her mother -- and she continues to aspire to more, and to bridle against being prevented from doing certain things simply because she is a woman.
       Though she does not do well at school, she comes to be determined then to go to university. Olsson nicely captures the would-be seriousness of the young student, soon drawn to: "bulky German tomes [...], deeply attractive to me with their indescribable mixture of precise scholarship and metaphysical drivel".
       Vega is like many at that age:
I was intensely interested in two things, one of which was 'life' and the other myself. And both of these were equally unfathomable. How terrifying 'life' was !
       She looks for answers in books and philosophy: after all: "I lived in an age very willing to keep me supplied with literature on the subject". Nietzsche is among the strong influences -- and not only on her:
     In our land, where culture has never been able to progress in any other way than by hurling itself from one extreme to the other, this was a time when every elementary-school teacher,, every post-office clerk was a superman. All the questing, dissatisfied young people were supermen. The cities swarmed with them -- recognisable by their long hair, their free and informal attire, their burning eyes, their proudly held heads -- but even in the countryside, eccentric individuals started to appear, rebelliously raising their foreheads from the dust and speaking mysteriously of the destine time.
       The Europe of the times is in ferment, mirroring her own internal struggles:
     Say what you like about the good old days before the war, they were not as monotonous, slow or tame as has been claimed. In this country, at least, minds and spirits were in a great hurry ! The stream of events was standing still, it is true, but it was the brooding stillness of an impending storm. Everything was waiting for the explosion.
       Chitambo mostly proceeds chronologically, from Vega's earliest childhood on -- a Bildungsroman of sorts -- but there are also shorter present-day chapters, printed here in italics. These include scenes of the continued hold Tancred, also called Ta, has over her, the young man who: "lived as an ascetic, a dreamer" that she became involved with, and is then a lost love she has not gotten over, her inability to save him, as it were, still weighing on her.
       The lively narrative, and formally creative presentation, set Chitambo apart some from the usual Bildungsroman. The unusual home she was raised in, with her two so different parents, is well-presented, with Mr Dreary idolized by the young child for his (unworldly) vision and ambitions, even as the older Vega clearly also sees his faults -- made clear, not least, in her calling him 'Mr Dreary', which he very much was in the domestic household. (As translator Sarah Death explains in her Afterword, this is an instance where she changed the name from the Swedish original ('Herr Dyster'), to make it all the more clear for English-speaking readers.) A brief escape to her grandfather's -- Mr Dreary's father -- exposes her to a different world, including her Uncle Eberhard, whom she meets at just the right time, with him: "capable of finding his way to a solitary heart that otherwise nursed a deep, well-founded suspicion of those around it". If not an alternative she can remain in, it is a stepping-stone to further ambition.
       The unsentimental portrait of the young girl and woman is an often striking one, well-conveyed by Olsson; so, too, the rich portraits of her parents with their different obsessions. The title of the novel takes its name from the place where David Livingstone died, on his failed search for the source of the Nile; Vega, too, sees herself seeking (and struggling to find ...), in the spirit of Livingstone, which Olsson weaves well into the novel with the book-ends of mentions of the adventurer, in the opening and closing sections.
       It all makes for a fine novel of growing up, as a woman, in this place and times, with some particularly well-turned writing along the way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 July 2021

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Chitambo: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish-writing Finnish author Hagar Olsson lived 1893 to 1978.

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© 2021 the complete review

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