Termush by Sven Holm

Translated by Sylvia Clayton

While I’m not formally running Nordic FINDS this year, not really having time for the admin, I still like reading Nordic books during the darker months of the year, and I squeezed in this Danish dystopia at the end of December, and if you wish to use the tag #NordicFINDS24 feel free!

Published in Faber’s ‘Editions’ series of rediscovered mid-century gems, Termush was first published in Danish in 1967, and in translation a couple of years later. This edition adds an introduction (which I read afterwards) by Jeff Vandermeer, current king of literary new weird eco-dystopias such as the Northern Reach Trilogy.

In Termush, we are in a post-nuclear war situation. We never found out the details of who dropped bombs on whom, but given that the novel was written shortly after the height of Cold War paranoia we can infer who could be implicated.

Our unnamed narrator introduces us to Termush, a fully-prepped remote coastal hotel for the pre-booked wealthy, with subterranean bunkers for days when the upstairs radiation is too high. The brochure had warned about the nature of radiation.

Was it this warning that convinced us that the things most familiar to us would, after the disaster, be the most alien? That phosphorus would tumble down the table of elements and turn into sulphur, that something with the appearance of a recognized metal would prove to be something quite different with altogether different properties, that stone would no longer be stone and air no longer air, so that to find a person turned into a pillar of salt would be no longer a myth but a reality. […]

But we came back from our stay in the shelter to a world changed less than a summer thunderstorm would have changed it.

At first, everything seems to run smoothly. Then the hotel management send out a reconnaissance team see what’s happening in the outside world. Of course this has the effect of letting people know they are there, and occasional refugees start to appear at the hotel. This, of course, leads to a moral dilemma … the hotel guests have all paid through the nose to guarantee their places, why should they let anyone who hasn’t paid in? But the humanitarian thing to do is to welcome them in, treat their radiation sickness and illness (the hotel does have a doctor and deputy MO). The guests fall into two camps, and hotel management has to come up with a way of dealing with the refugees in a not inhuman way – they keep them to a staff area, feed them with non-guest food etc. But the strong personalities amongst the guests are causing foment, which is not aligned to our narrator’s credo, and he keeps more and more to himself, although he has a sort of relationship with a lady guest, Maria, opposite him on his floor.

You know it can’t end with them living out their days in the sanctuary of the hotel, of course. It’s so difficult to shut yourself off when the outside world still exists in some form and you know it’ll come crashing in, leading to difficult decisions to be made, basically, bunker or escape… I couldn’t possibly say how it ends.

JG Ballard was ploughing a similar furrow in the early 1960s, but his protagonists are usually men of action rather than thought as in Holm’s protagonist. This is an eerie novella indeed, well worth its revival for our times now, and another great addition to the Faber Editions series.

Source: Own copy. Faber flapped paperback, 119 pages + intro.

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8 thoughts on “Termush by Sven Holm

  1. MarketGardenReader/IntegratedExpat says:

    Running a challenge does look like hard work, which is why I’ve never done it, otherwise I might run a Dutch literature challenge. I’ve already gathered together my Nordic books for January, so I hope you don’t mind me continuing to use the NordicFINDS tag. I dare say I’m not the only one.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    I have this together with a bundle of Faber Editions and very much look forward to reading it (if I can squeeze it in between my January in Japan reads).

  3. Calmgrove says:

    An interesting approach to what might otherwise be a clichéd theme, of finite resources attracting outsiders and where one should or should not draw the line. Great review.

    I liked the discipline of your FINDS project even if it’s now put on hold so I’ll see if I can fit in a Nordic read this January, but it may be February before I get round to a review. We’ll see. 🙂

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was great that it contrasts so well with Ballard’s similar situations in terms of the
      main characters.
      By the way, Nordic FINDS isn’t so much on hold, as just gone casual and admin free. I’m still reading Nordic books in the darker months.

      • Calmgrove says:

        Ah, I admit that wasn’t an apt phrase, sorry, I really did know it remained a thing which was now taking a life of its own, as it were! I’ve actually just started The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardottir instead of The Day of the Triffids which was an option for Vintage SciFi Month. What with these two memes and Japanese Lit Month it’s got me in a pother about where to turn to next using only titles on Mount TBR!

        I’ve not tried any Ballard – he seems such a Marmite kind of author that I feel I may have to steel myself up to get into his work. 😐

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