Monday, October 20, 2014

The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf

A dark and chilling fable
Selma Lagerlöf of Sweden was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. She is perhaps best known for her children’s stories and fairy tales, but her 1903 novel The Treasure (Swedish title: Herr Arnes penningar) is one work of literature that definitely requires some adult supervision. Its only resemblance to a fairy tale is that it delivers a moral message, one that speaks of the conflict between love and loyalty, between desire and conscience.

This is a brief novel and one that’s full of surprises, so the less said about the plot the better. The story is set in the coastal town of Marstrand in the mid-16th century. It is February, and here the winters are so cold even the sea freezes over. The bleak frozen landscape contributes to the macabre atmosphere of the story. Torarin is a traveling fish seller who is making his rounds by horse and sledge across the icy wasteland, accompanied by his faithful dog Grim. He stops at Solberga Parsonage, where dwells Herr Arne, who is not only the local priest but also the wealthiest man in the area. As Torarin joins the family for dinner, a bizarre occurrence takes place. Herr Arne’s wife, suddenly overcome with terror, claims she can hear knives being sharpened at a neighboring farm two miles a way. While Herr Arne dismisses this premonition as a nervous hallucination, some at the table see it as an evil omen.

Despite being written over a century ago, The Treasure has a great deal of contemporary appeal. There’s nothing antiquated about Lagerlöf’s writing, the story is riveting, and the suspenseful scenes have lost none of their edge. This novel is crying out for a 21st-century film adaptation. There are disturbing violent crimes worthy of a Martin Scorcese or David Fincher movie, and supernatural phenomena that can compete with the creepiest Japanese or Korean horror movies of recent years. The thrills and chills in Lagerlöf’s narrative, however, are secondary to its insight into humanity. Ultimately, The Treasure is a novel about the choices that people make, and how they end up paying for them.

This novel is only about 60 or 70 pages in length, but it has a power and gravity to it that makes it feel like a much more substantial work of literature. You don’t have to be a lover of classic literature to enjoy this book. Readers of all stripes will be shocked, moved, and enlightened by Lagerlöf’s stirring story.

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