PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: W. Glyn Jones
Serpent Fjord is a long inlet stretching into the island deep between lofty grassy fells. At the bottom it opens into the broad pool officially called Kingsport, but in everyday parlance simply known as The Cauldron. The sea is always smooth in there, and safer anchorage cannot be found. There it lies tucked away like a womb deep inside the island, a fruitful, teeming uterine passage in the midst of the desolate ocean, a favoured spot amidst the ravages of war, a haven for weary seamen, a refuge for deracines and refugees, a breeding ground for religious sects, a cosy nest for profiteers of every kind.
Here it is that Solomon Olsen has his home; he is said to be the richest man in the country, though many are of the opinion that M. W. Opperman is not far from catching up with him. And there are other citizens of importance: Consul Tarnowius, Stefan Sveinsson and J. F. Schibbye's widow. Olivarius Tunstein deserves a mention as well: he began by hiring an old sand-pump dredger to export fish, and now he is the owner of the huge and lucrative cutter the Gratitude. Then there is Inspector Joab Hansen's sister Masa, the owner of the biggest retail store in town.
But Opperman stands out among the whole bunch. He is legendary. His reputation is not based principally on his shipping and fishing company; he only owns a couple of small cutters, whereas a Solomon Olsen has a whole fleet including schooners and trawlers. No, it is his wholesale business that has rightly made Opperman famous. Only a few years ago he was a quite ordinary travelling salesman, and now he runs a wholesale business in the grand style. Despite war and want this man has been extraordinarily successful in procuring even the scarcest of goods, and there is hardly a tradesman in the entire country with whom he does not have some profitable connection. In addition to this he is the owner of the Bells of Victory restaurant, a major shareholder in the Flora Danica margarine factory, the North Pole Cold Storage Plant, the Congo Steam Laundry, the Vesuvius Machine Shop and the Angelica Bog Fox Farm; moreover, he is Portuguese Consul and Chairman of the Employers' Association. And he is connstantly expanding his activities, erecting new buildings and appointing new staff.
As a person, Opperman is something of a mystery, but he is by no means unpopular; he is affable with everyone, not arrogant like Consul Tarnowius, curt like J. F. Schibbye's widow or sectarian and self-righteous like Solomon Olsen. But of course he has his faults and his comical sides. He speaks a language known to no man, and there are many who find his manner somewhat effeminate. But more than almost anyone else Opperman has one excellent quality: he never loses his temper. You can call him what you like - soft or sly, old-maidish or ruthless, stick-in-the-mud or loose-liver, even lecher and murderer - as some indeed have done: he will always disarm you with his quiet, forgiving, one might almost say fond smile, his Mona Lisa smile, as Mr Heimdal the bookseller, himself a great lover of the arts, has facetiously described it.
The new office and warehouse that Opperman has had built and recently taken into use is the work of the bookseller's young architect son, Rafael Heimdal, designed in the most up-to-date style in concrete and glass. He has economised on nothing; there is plenty of light and air and heat here, a lift, a toilet and a rubbish chute, an air-raid shelter, kitchen and cafeteria for the employees, comfortable offices with plenty of space, and cosy inner rooms furnished with Chesterfield chairs for visitors and customers to sit at their ease. Here, too, there is what is called a news bureau, a kind of waiting room or whatever, where Opperman's employees can go and listen to the news and stimulate their intellects with good reading. The benches lining the walls in the news bureau are covered in red oilcloth, and the long polished tables are strewn with copies of Picture Post, Life and other illustrated periodicals and price lists laid out for general use. On the walls there are advertisements and pictures illustrating the progress of the war, explosions, sinking ships, aeroplanes shot down in flames, ruined cities, maimed women and children, maps and statistics and portraits of Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and General Smuts. These comfortable rooms, with an entrance from the street and giving direct access to the air-raid shelter in the cellar, Opperman has generously placed at the disposal of anyone desirous of resting and relaxing, discussing current affairs and generally feeling at home; for whatever else Opperman might or might not be, he is a democrat through and through, and he never misses an opportunity to show this in practice.
For instance, he is totally indifferent to social status, eschewing the company of Consul Tarnowius, Doctor Tonnesen, Mr. de Fine Licht the pharmacist, Villefrance the bank manager, Ingerslev the director of the telegraph office, and other so-called leading people. But he is fond of the company of quite ordinary men and women and of the non-commissioned ranks; he has employed people of doubtful reputation like Black Betsy and the infamous Froja Tornkrona, and indeed he does not even turn away in disgust from drunks like Selimsson the photographer or down-at-heel scholars like the Icelandic researcher Engilbert Thomsen; he gives them all a forbearing smile and takes them into his employment.
Indeed, Opperman is a friend of the people. Nor does he forget widows and the fatherless. For instance, the young bard Bergthor Ornberg came to see him yesterday to ask for a contribution to a newly-formed association with the object of helping children in distress, the offspring of sailors killed in the war; without hesitation Opperman put a cheque for 15,000 kroner on the table, earnestly pleading at the same time that no mention should be made of his name in connection with it. Bergthor was speechless and said he could make no promises. On the contrary, he went straight up to Mr. Skælling, the newspaper editor, with the splendid news, and this morning The News has a front page article in bold lettering telling of Opperman's magnifiicent gesture. This is all the more remarkable as even Solomon Olsen himself has only thought fit to support this noble cause to the tune of 2000 kroner, while Stefan Sveinsson only has 500 to his name; those of Consul Tarnowius and J. F. Schibbye's widow are nowhere to be seen on the list of subscribers.
Little wonder that the name of Opperman is on everyyone's lips. Old Ole the Post, who is delivering the newspaper in the slowly awakening town sees all lips curling round the syllable op. “Op, op, Opperman,” he mutters a little crabbily but inoffensively to himself. Ole is one of those who say little, but at times the adulation of the great figures and their English pounds becomes too much for him. Pounds and endless pounds ... pounds and war, pounds and war.
Down in the harbour a newly-arrived ship is docking. It is Opperman's Manuela, skippered by young Ivar Berghammer from Angelica Cottage. And there comes Opperman himself. Ole's mouth contorts, but then he has to stop for a moment and savour the picture of this man whose name is on everyone's lips. Opperman is dressed in his checked summer suit, small but elegant; he is carrying his white cane and sporting an artificial red flower in his button hole. His upper lip is marked with a thin black moustache and the well-known kindly smile. There are those who say that he is a Portuguese. Others maintain that his mother came from Mexico and his father from Hamburg, but that he was born in London. Yet others argue that he is English born and bred. “No concern of mine,” thinks Ole as he turns away and vigorously ejects a stream from his chewing tobacco. “As far as I'm concerned he can be from the Dodecanese or Ivigtut or Timbuktoo. They're all confounded foreigners, the whole lot of them: Consul Tarnowius is Danish, Stefan Sveinsson's Icelandic, Schibbye's widow's from Bornholm, Villefranche the bank manager's a Jew, Doctor Tonnesen's a Jute, and Pastor Fleisch comes from Ringkobing. There's folk from every country con-ceivable in the Cauldron here: Tornkrona the tailor's Swedish, Selimsson the photographer's Finnish, Batt the smith's father was a Scot, and the pharmacist's wife is from Antwerp. And Mrs. Opperman was born in Frederiksted on St. Croix. Then there's that Italian sculptor Schiaparelli. And Miss Schwartz in the pharmacy is supposed to be Polish. Not to mention all the new flotsam that's been washed up by the war - soldiers, refugees and wrecks, spies, blacks and muslims. And what about those three queer lodgers of Mrs. Lundegaard's: Thygesen and Myklebust - always as drunk as lords - and that curious Icelandic tramp Engilbert Thomsen.”
But Thygesen and Myklebust are probably fundamentally decent men. It was heartbreaking to see their emotion the other day when Ole delivered their wretched Red Cross letters ... Those two tough men sobbed like schoolgirls, whether from sorrow or joy. They were both well under the influence, and Ole the Post was given an enorrmous glass of snaps. And Myklebust stuffed a whole bottle of Ainslie into his jacket.
Ole stops in front of Mrs. Lundegaard's little private hotel. A creel full of offal is standing on a packing case near the entrance to the kitchen. The sounds of a guitar and a deep unsteady voice can be heard coming from the attic; it is Thygesen; he is very musical. Mrs. Lundegaard takes her newspaper and pouts her mouth for her “Opperman”. And now the Icelandic researcher appears,chewing away at something, shabbily dressed, long-haired, pale and unshaven, but big and strong and with a sort of melancholy omniscient smile in his brown eyes. He is in a good mood and nods good morning as he lifts the heavy creel and puts the sackcloth straps around his forehead to steady it as he carries it off on his back.
Ole remembers he has a letter for Liva Berghammer, the lass from Angelica Cottage. He fishes it out and asks the Icelander to do him a favour and take it with him as he is going that way in any case. Engilbert stuffs the letter under his jersey and moves slowly up the hillside.
It is said of Engilbert Thomsen that he is a visionary, and that he believes in trolls and witches, sprites and mermaids. Others maintain he is a spy. He can't really be a nice person to have under your roof, but Mrs. Lundegaard always speaks of him with as much respect as she would of an archbishop. Oh well, when all is said and done, she's a lonely widow in her mid-thirties, and the huge Icelander is a man in the prime of life. In general Ole the Post is inclined to feel a little envious of Mrs. Lundegaard's three lodgers. They must live a very comfortable life here, for Mrs. Lundegaard's benevolence knows no bounds; there is an abundance here of good food and drink. Ole himself never crosses the threshold of the hotel without Mrs. Lundegaard putting her cigar box and the little flower-covered snaps bottle on the kitchen table. He shakes himself in elated anticipation as he turns around in the doorway and rids his mouth of the morning's well-worn chewing tobacco.