Books

Termush review: A rediscovered dystopian masterpiece

This republished Danish classic from 50 years ago proves to be eerily prescient for modern audiences

Termush book cover

There can be few greater pleasures in literature than the recovery of a previously lost classic. The slim dystopian novella Termush by Sven Holm is one such rediscovery, having languished in the Faber archives for decades until uncovered recently by their classics editor. The book was originally published in the author’s native Denmark in 1967 and translated into English by Sylvia Clayton in 1969. This repackaged edition comes with an effusive introduction by Jeff VanderMeer and rightly so. 

From its opening page, Termush is a creepy and enigmatic masterpiece, setting a tone of weird paranoia that drags the reader headlong into a wonderfully realised post-apocalyptic world. The unnamed narrator is one of a host of rich guests at Hotel Termush who, at great expense, purchased places in the residence before the apocalypse. The elite residents survived a nuclear holocaust within Termush’s bunkers, emerging to a life in the hotel that seems unaffected by what has happened. 

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Radiation levels produce regular warnings, and the residents are advised not to leave the grounds. The management of Termush shields the worst of what has happened in the rest of the world from the residents but, gradually, the real-life global disaster begins to creep into their lives.

While the management seeks to censor bleak news, the narrator tries to find out the truth along with a few others. As things escalate, all the residents will have to make big decisions.

The book feels oddly prescient in the aftermath of the recent global pandemic. It examines with pinpoint accuracy the idea that the rich can effectively buy insurance against catastrophe and continue to live in a bubble of privilege while the rest of the world suffers. The unnamed narrator’s deadpan delivery lends the story an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere, making Termush feel like a precursor to the bleak dystopias of writers like JG Ballard.

Considering Termush was first published over half a century ago, it feels timeless, and has strong contemporary resonances with the 21st-century world. Exceptional writing.

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist 

Termush book cover

Termush by Sven Holm, translated by Sylvia Clayton, is out now (Faber, £9.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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