A conversation with Anders Klarlund
Coauthor of a Danish thriller centered around the Jewish legend of the 36 Righteous
Someone – or something – is killing the righteous people of the world. Over a period of several years, in a barely discernible series of mysterious incidents spanning the globe, one selfless, if not saintly, person after another is found dead, each with a large, intricately tattooed number on his or her back. By the time Venice police detective Tommaso di Barbara finally theorizes that the victims are among the Lamed Vavnikim – the 36 righteous individuals in each generation for whose sake God sustains the existence of the world, a tradition originating in the Talmud – the tally of victims has reached 34. If two more “good people” die, humanity could face extinction.
Now, as “The Last Good Man” opens, it is December 2009. The world’s leaders are descending on Copenhagen to coordinate a response to climate change, and Danish policeman Lars Bentzon is given the bizarre assignment of trying to identify, and preempt the killing of, the next victim. With the help of Tommaso, in Italy, and an emotionally fragile Danish mathematician named Hannah, Lars pieces together the meaning of the deaths, and races against the clock to save the world, no less.
This, roughly, is the basic plot of “The Last Good Man,” a surprising thriller by A.J. Kazinski, the pseudonym of Danish writers Anders Klarlund and Jacob Weinreich (translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally, Scribner, 480 pages, $27). Klarlund, 40, is a veteran filmmaker and screenwriter; Weinreich, 39, is a novelist. Haaretz spoke with Klarlund about their book from his home in Copenhagen.
What in the world made you and Jacob Weinreich think of writing a book based on the legend of the 36 Righteous?
It was around the time of the COP 15 [climate conference of December 2009] in Copenhagen, which obviously got a lot of attention. We had the feeling at one point that the whole global warming thing was both completely imaginary and also real. Denmark is absolutely the most atheistic country in the world; God is really dead in Denmark. And with that comes an enormous guilt and a feeling that we’re responsible for everything. That’s probably the downside of our lack of religion, this tendency to focus extremely on ourselves, to a degree that becomes unhealthy and narcissistic. And we saw people perhaps overreacting [to climate change].
In the meantime, I had been reading a Danish book from the ‘80s, called “The Seducer: It Is Hard to Die in Dieppe” [by Henrik Stangerup]. The author mentions the myth, just in passing, of these 36 righteous people, and it was something I’d never heard of before. I thought it was interesting, and then immediately imagined a police officer becoming obsessed with this case [of the 36 Righteous dying off], and trying to find the last good man. I thought: Maybe that’s the most interesting thing I can do right now, in this narcissistic, non-religious, completely secular society we live in – to reintroduce religion.
Is it not a little bit weird that the tradition that captivates your policeman, Lars, is a Jewish one?
Well, Jesus was Jewish, so it’s all Jewish. Everything that we used to believe in was Jewish, except maybe beliefs from Norse religion – Odin and Thor, etc.
What’s your own religious background?
My father singlehandedly managed to get school prayer banned in the 1970s at my school. I still remember my teacher of Christianity leaving the meeting crying. I think of my father as the one who successfully abolished religion. So I was brought up extremely atheistic.
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Your father accomplished this on a national level, or just in your school?
In my school. But for a kid who is 7 years old, being witness to his father standing up in this congregation of all the parents and teachers, and agitating for abolishing prayer in school completely, I thought, oh, why is this so ... well, I believe my interest in religion was born at that point. If it’s so taboo, then it must be interesting.
How did you end up doing this book with another writer, Jacob Weinreich?
I was a film director. Years ago Jacob sent me an idea for a script he wanted me to direct, and we talked about it, but nothing came of that. [More recently,] we began meeting to discuss world developments. We met once a week, minus vacations, for two years, until we nailed it. And then we wrote the book in three months.
How did you divide the labor?
Jacob did the research in Denmark. I got to go Venice. I visited the hospice, and had a date with the Venice police in the canals, and interviewed them – all these things that are impossible to depict without research. For example, I learned that they have the highest rate of suicide, in the Venice area, in all of Italy.
This is a surprising book. You think you’re reading a murder mystery, but it goes off in what I suppose one could call a metaphysical direction. Of course, I don’t want to reveal the ending.
What we can talk about is that it has a surprising ending, to many people. To me, the biggest letdown in almost all crime novels is when they find the killer. I remember in a movie like “Seven” – I was very disappointed when it turned out the killer was just Kevin Spacey. You’re building up to something devilish, something almost supernatural, certainly something more than just a deranged psychopath. One of the few books where you’re happy with the outcome of the whole mystery is [Agatha Christie’s] “Murder on the Orient Express” because it’s all of them on the train that did it. You’ve been dragging people through hundreds of pages of detective-solving and speculation, and we wanted to come up with something that leads to a bit of afterthought, something that you can contemplate. I certainly think that we’ve done that with this one.
You have several characters in the book, characters who are apparently among the 36 Righteous, who give up that status by committing a violent act. What was happening there, that they lost the personal responsibility for keeping the world intact by doing something bad? So that the responsibility passes to someone else?
Exactly. But let me say it differently. One day, I heard on the radio that there was a Danish priest – we do still have some – who said that he wanted there to be a national ban on the recounting of the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain.
A ban on telling the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac?
Yes, that was his suggestion. That the story shouldn’t be told in Danish churches anymore. Well, I’m always interested when there’s a ban on something, when people want to abolish something. It must have significance. The churches are empty anyway, so why are people suddenly afraid of this most fundamental myth in the Bible, ours and yours? Even as kids, there’s nothing that surprises us more, and horrifies us – and defines Christianity, and I think also your religion – more than this story. God asking him to listen and to sacrifice. And you know, very soon afterward, it was apparent to me that it was obviously because Denmark had again become a country where we ask young men to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for a greater cause – now we call it democracy. Denmark has participated substantially in the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So suddenly, we had this thing again with the sacrifice of life for something bigger. Jacob Weinreich and I wanted to tackle that theme and go straight to the source. It’s such a fundamental part of our cultural history, and self-understanding. That’s what you do when you really believe, you sacrifice.
When we say, “Do you believe in God?” – if you believe in God, you have to kill – that was the philosophical basis for having that as a central theme to the story.
You express a lot of ambivalence about the environmental movement. Are you mocking it, or do you in fact see this as a critical moment for humanity?
When you hear, say, President Sarkozy, who, when he flew to Copenhagen, say that personally he would not accept more than a two-degree rise in temperature – it just seemed that, if the price for abolishing religion is that we go crazy in our self-understanding, that we actually believe that we can regulate temperature like that, then it’s a heavy price to pay.
Wait a minute. Are you saying you don’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity?
Look, I’m ambivalent. On one hand, it’s easy to see the whole thing as a farce. You’re on an airplane, you look down at the planet, and you find it impossible to imagine that something as insignificant as we are can regulate the temperature on the globe. But then we land, and we are in our massive cities, and then all of a sudden we gain this understanding of ourselves as extremely significant. And then we’re suddenly scared that we could ruin the whole universe, just by existing. And that may be overdoing it, I think. So, I’m somewhere in between those two points.
You seem very busy and productive. Where are you primarily in your professional life now?
I quit the film business, after 20 years, and five or six feature films, and TV and all that stuff. Just because, fundamentally, when I started out, I sat down and wrote half a novel. I looked at it and I said, you’re not ready for this yet. So I went into the film business, and directed for 20 years, and then I was ready. I happily left the film business. It feels like getting out of prison.
People watch something like a movie a day, so they have become very good at watching films. And that makes it increasingly more and more difficult to make a good film. In Danish circumstances, working with limited budgets, on extremely tight schedules, it was becoming increasingly difficult. And along the process, I grew up and became old enough to see that there’s a certain correlation between budget and time schedule and the product you have in the end. But basically, it was because I stopped watching so many movies and started reading more books. But it’s still a narrative. Basically, I’m a storyteller.
So you’ve stopped watching movies?
I only watch old movies, the ones I like, over and over.
I understand that you have visited Israel many times. Why is that?
It’s my fundamental secret fling. I remember when I was a teenager, I visited for the first time, and standing on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, I thought, it just, I remember standing there and looking at the name, and thinking: This is where he walked. This really evokes the religious person that I am. My father had to make everything so secret. So I had to go and do it.
For me, one of the most powerful parts of the legend of the 36 is that none of them know they’re one of the righteous.
Does the legend still speak to you?
It’s such a beautiful thought that it deserves to be believed in a little bit.