Book Reviews, The Noble Nobel Project
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The Man in the Yellow Suit – Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries is a novel about Johan Nagel, a man who suddenly lives in a small Norwegian town and who gets the townspeople going with his eccentric thoughts and impulsive acts. With no apparent reason for sojourning in the town and then leaving it just as soon as he arrived, Nagel probes into the deep recesses of the people’s souls, thereby disrupting the peace of the people and turning everyone against him while he goes closer to his own destruction. It is a psychological novel that begins with loose ends and finishes with more loose ends that will  remain as they are: mysteries.

One summer, Nagel arrives at the town wearing a yellow suit. From the port, he sees flags fluttering, and instead of continuing his journey at the sea, he decides to stay. Nagel is rather short, his upper body is quite big for his build, he is in his late twenties, and he has a couple of suitcases and a violin case that contains his soiled clothes. That last bit raises the eyebrow: why keep clothes and not a violin in a container meant for a violin?

We don’t know anything about his past. He just arrives; that’s it. He does not receive a warm welcome from a town that is actually not interesting. The flags he saw upon arrival are not for him but he stays anyway. It could have been any other coastal town, and if the reader tries to understand why he chose this town in particular, the first chapter will be hardly finished.

Local townspeople are introduced as Nagel interacts with them. One of them is The Midget, a courteous fellow who is always the object of the town’s ridicules. Nagel is immediately drawn to this grotesquely described man, so upon learning his plight, he befriends him, and his conversations with him allow us to see how this stranger operates.

What would it be like to be floating around up there among the planets, feeling the tails of the comets brushing against one’s forehead? What a tiny speck the earth was, and how insignificant its inhabitants–Norway had two million bumpkins supported by mortgages and bank loans. What was the point of living, anyway? You fight your way ahead with blood and sweat for a few miserable years, only to turn into dust! Nagel put his head in his hands. He would finally get out of it all–end it! Would he ever be capable of carrying it off? Yes, by God, he wouldn’t falter! He felt euphoric at the idea of having this escape hatch in reserve. Tears of rapture came into his eyes, and the intense emotion made his breathing heavy. He was already rocking on the seas of the heavens, singing as he fished with a silver hook. His boat was made of scented wood, and the oars gleamed like white wings; the sail was of light blue silk and shaped like a half moon…

This novel, switching from third to first person, has an eccentric character for the lead, a type of character that the author is fond of. The novel is inspired by the strangeness and mysteries that reside in the mind and body. We see Hamsun’s unrivaled talent in handling Nagel’s thoughts through seemingly straightforward sentences that jump from one idea to another. Nagel is in a perpetual state of flux: his excitability is hard to keep up with during his moments of hysteria and his bouts of depression are as devastating as they could get. His moods are unpredictable, so one is almost caught offhanded as he raves about various things, particularly the true intentions and the secret longings of the townspeople.

[Anyway, what the devil am I doing, lying here laughing? Am I trying to show my superiority? Only children and young girls should be allowed to laugh like this. Laughter originated in our monkey days–a revolting sound coming out of the windpipe. It’s expelled from wherever it happens to be in my body when I’m tickled under the chin. What was it Hauge, the butcher, who had an uproarious laugh of his own, said to me once? He said that no one who had all his five senses…]

The town always murmurs about him, and why not? He voices out the least popular opinions and tells the craziest stories. However much the people indulge him in talk, no one could truly understand him because he always contradicts himself. He would declare his undying love for the minister’s daughter, Dagny Kielland, and then tell her after that no, he doesn’t love her. He tries to bring himself closer to her, and yet he always succeeds in making a negative impression of himself.

There is also a conniving and manipulative part of him. He uses these traits for his own interests, which are all murky. He is capable of persuading people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. Thus said, he has a certain amount of charm and candor, as if his other characteristics aren’t enough to keep the reader interested.

[Over there, for instance, sticking out of my vest pocket is the neck of a vial. It contains “medicine”–prussic acid. I carry it because I am curious by nature, but I don’t have the courage to take it. But why do I carry it around, and why did I get it in the first place? Hypocrisy again, nothing but a sham; the decadence, phoniness, self-adulation, and snobbery of our times! To hell with all of it! She’s as white and delicate as china: she’s my morbid Melesina…]

Although Nagel is at the center of this novel, it is really about the soul unsettling from its comfortable seat. Nagel merely acts as the magnifying glass in probing what is in there. He asserts that people are selfish and that they always have ulterior motives. He even questions that casual handling of a change to a beggar. Why are people doing what they are doing? Are acts of kindness borne out of a pure heart, or are they propagated by the need to glorify oneself?

In reading Nagel’s opinions, the reader is forced to evaluate his own self. Why am I doing what I am doing? Did Nagel bring out a truth about me that I’ve either buried or failed to recognize? Is he overanalyzing things or merely speaking what’s on his mind? One may continue arguing with Nagel, and this internal, alternate argument is one of the beauties of this novel. It makes us think while trying to figure out this character.

[I can’t accept that it’s only theory.God help me, but my way of looking at things is so radically different from everybody else’s. Is it my fault? Am I personally to blame? I’m a stranger, alien to this world, a stubborn manifestation of God–call me what you will…]

And at the end, I daresay we can’t really figure Nagel out. We never understand what he means. Erratic, probably deranged, but absolutely enthralling, he leaves the reader with a lingering feeling that he is a predator and a prey at the same time. Surely, there’s a void inside him, and just as we delude ourselves in claiming to quite get his drift, he’s just gone. For sure, the townspeople will often wonder about this man who came as a stranger and left still a stranger. It’s almost like the author just ended everything on a whim, and one is almost forced to flip the book back to page one.

Dates Read: March 15 to 26, 2013

No. of Pages: 340

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars



  1. I’d love to read another Knut Hamsun after I’ve read Hunger, and I guess this will be a good book to read next, don’t you think? Plus I love reading mysteries as well. ;)


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