Saturday, January 17, 2009

"The Exception": a Danish novel about genocide, women, and the office

Danish writer Christian Jungersen's 2nd novel "The Exception" was a bestseller in Europe and won a major Danish literary prize. Published in English in 2007, the novel uses a thriller format to investigagte the psychology of evil among Danes.

The novel focuses on four women who work for the Danish Center for Information on Genocide (DCIG), an archive of material about genocide open to the public. The four women all think of themselves as good people--human rights workers, people who care.
Danes have always prided themselves that during World War II, they were the exception to the rest of Europe who handed over their Jews to the Nazis as the Danes were the only country to save their Jews on principal.

The four women in the office think they carry on the Danish tradition of goodness. Malene, the program manager, helped her best friend Iben get the job as head of public information at DCIG; both are attractive university graduates in the late twenties. Camila, the secretary, and Anne-Lise, the librarian, are in their forties, married, with children. All four feel lucky to have their good jobs at DCIG because many university graduates have no jobs. Yet Malene, Iben, and Camilla have been harassing Anne-Lise, the newest one, for some time in the office. Malene seems to be the ringleader, taking away part of the librarian's job after the previous librarian quit and still continues to do part of the librarian's job after Anne-Lise is hired.

In the beginning of the novel three of the women get death threats, and they think Mirko Zigic, a Serbian war criminal on the loose somewhere in Europe, is the culprit as Malene and Iben have articles on the Internet condemning Zigic. The police soon loose interest in the case, so the women are left alone with their fears. Paul, the head of DCIG, is often absent trying to make sure his small center isn't swallowed up by a larger government institute so rumors of layoffs swirl around the office. Malene, Iben, and Camilla would rather not think about the war criminal sending them email death threats, so they decide Anne-Lise, who has begun to express anger over her harassment, has sent the emails. The office becomes divided into warring factions; paranoia increases. The women do outrageous acts--spy on each other, spread untrue rumours, try to get Anne-Lise fired.

Jungersen tells the story alternating the voices of the four women so one is first appaled by the woman's behavior and then one sees her viewpoint. Each woman has her vulnerabilities. Malene is battling with rheumatoid arthritis, is afraid her boyfriend will leave her, and is afraid of layoffs. Iben was recently kidnapped in Africa and acted heroically rescuing the other kidnap victims but has post-traumatic stress and is extremely paranoid. Camilla was bullied terribly as a child and is hiding the fact she had a war criminal Serbian ex-boyfriend. She will do anything not to be bullied including bullying another person. Anne-Lise is terrified if she loses her librarian job in the bad economy she'll never get another librarian job in Denmark.

At the same time Iben, the intellectual center of the book, is publishing articles about the psychology of evil in genocide which are reprinted in the novel, but the office women never see the obvious parallels between their behavior and the behavior of those who commit war crimes. Iben writes about the book "Ordinary Men" by American professor Christopher Browning which argues that German soldiers participated in genocide not in obedience to authority but out of loyalty to peers--peer pressure. Yes, office politics, particularly in economic recession, can get vicious, but does it have the same psychological elements as genocide?

At one point Iben steals Anne-Lise's CD, which is a diary of her suffering at the office. After reading the diary, Iben for the first time sympathizes with Anne-Lise; in the office next when Malene starts the harassment of Anne-Lise, Malene turns to her best friend Iben for support. Iben knows she no longer participate, but breaking ranks would meaning losing Malene, her best friend who got her the job. Iben breaks ranks, supports Anne-Lise. Malene starts screaming at her. Iben has proved to be the exception.

The novel is not over. The novelist increases the tension as the women learn about Camilla's war criminal ex-boyfriend. Is he the one sending emails? Will Camilla now be the odd one out at the office? "The Exception" is a gripping novel that interrogates in tough times who will do evil acts? Who will be the exception?

1 comment:

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