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A tent, an elk, and an existential crisis

Doppler is sick of his nice life with his nice wife and nice children. Sick of toeing the line and being a passive consumer in Oslo society, chasing money in a city bloated with oil wealth. Also, his father is dead and it hurts. A bump on the head from a cycling accident prompts an epiphany, and in a clever, satirical skewering of modern life, Doppler by Erlend Loe chronicles Doppler’s desertion of his family, in exchange for a tent in the Norwegian forest, where he will take up contemplation of modern existence in the devoted company of a very small elk.

Unsurprisingly, as a lifelong city dweller, Doppler’s initial efforts at self-sufficiency are somewhat feeble. Eventually, propelled by rabid hunger, he knifes, kills and eats a mother elk, watched all the while by her wide-eyed baby.

The baby elk hangs around, piercing Doppler’s conscience with its large, trusting eyes. Veering between the belief that the calf needs to understand that it’s alone in a harsh world and pangs of terrible guilt, Doppler gives in, invites it into the tent and apologises. As it’s emitting a welcome degree of body heat, he lets the calf sleep in the tent, it makes a magnificent pillow.

‘When I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way…I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this with my wife.’

Having a silent, listening partner makes a great change for Doppler, and he makes full use of it by sharing his new-found philosophies with the elk. One of these, is an enthusiasm for the barter system, and he treks off to the nearest supermarket (this is hardly the Arctic wilds), where the manager agrees to give him some basic supplies in exchange for slices of mother elk meat. This solo experiment is looking promising.

Loe’s absurdist tale of existential crisis explores one man’s struggle with grief and alienation. Ironically, as much as Doppler wishes to be alone, news of his arrival attracts a bizarre cast of local characters. One of them is an eccentric gentleman named Düsseldorf, whose nearby home contains a large-scale homemade model of the scene of his father’s death, a recreation with a clock set at almost twenty minutes past two in the afternoon, the exact time he died.

Unable to talk about his father with anyone, Düsseldorf has created this work of art. It is a unique tribute, and it gives Doppler an idea. He will follow his new-found friend’s ‘excellent example,’. Having (of course) taken up wood whittling since moving to the forest, maybe he could carve a totem pole in the likeness of his own father.

With the elk as his silent therapist, Doppler works through his bereavement and anxieties, which range from environmental degradation to guilt at the accumulated wealth of his country.

Originally published to huge acclaim in 2004 and translated into English in 2012 by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Loe’s funny, razor-sharp novel makes an excellent addition to our Scandinavian Literature archive.

Doppler by Erlend Loe is translated by Don Bartlett and published by Head of Zeus, 172 pages.

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