If Sweden is such a nice peaceful country, why is their fiction so bleak and violent (From FT)
The first page of the first chapter of Henning Mankell’s latest (and apparently last) Wallander novel The Troubled Man is sheer misery. Inspector Kurt Wallander, divorced for 15 years, lives in a flat “where so many unpleasant memories were etched into the walls”; he “reminded himself over and over again of his father’s lonely old age … now it seemed as if his father was taking him over … he had no religious hopes of anything being in store for him … nothing but the same darkness he had once emerged from … he would be dead for such a long time … he had seen far too many dead bodies in his life”.
Wallander novels might be prefaced by the sign Dante imagined above the gates of Hell – “lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’ intrate”: “all hope abandon, ye who enter here”: for in these books, the descent is often through deepening layers of horror. The same could be said for much of rest of the now enormously popular, critically acclaimed school of Scandinavian noir – for noir they are, set in the bleakness of towns and forests, dark for much of the year. The cult BBC hit of the year so far, the Danish-made Copenhagen-set The Killing, which ends this weekend, is shot almost wholly at night.
Moreover, the crimes featured in these stories are hideously cruel. Wallander, based in the southern Swedish town of Ystad, constantly encounters torture, rape and disfigurement as a prelude to murder. The victim in The Killing, a pretty young woman, is tortured, stuffed into the boot of a car still alive and drowned when the car is pushed into a lake. And in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, 2005-2007), the frequency of the violence against women has led to its late and ardently feminist author being dubbed a sadistic misogynist fantasist. Larsson’s heroine Lisbeth Salander, raped by her guardian, exacts her revenge on him in a six-page orgy of torture, ending with a tattoo etched across his chest down to his crotch that reads: “I am a sadistic pig, a pervert and a rapist.”
Crime fiction has long depended on a sense of dark forces lurking below calm surfaces and it is not unusual for it to have a reformist, critical edge. Critics have pointed to US noir novels and films as an allegory for fears of subversion and communism in the 1940s and 50s. English country-house crime of the Mousetrap genre depended on an assumption that, behind the tennis and the gin, bestial passions waited their time.
But in Scandinavian noir this is frequently married to a revolutionary intent. Most of these writers are militantly left-wing. It is a tradition started by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple of Swedish journalists who, between 1965 and 1975 (when Wahlöö died in his late 40s) wrote the 10-novel Martin Beck series. Beck, a Stockholm police inspector who resembles the later Wallander, stoically solves crimes that are often rooted in upper-class chicanery or lower-class desperation.
Interviewed by The Observer in 2009, Sjöwall said: “We wanted to describe society from our left point of view … we could show readers that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.”
Larsson’s main work, aside from his novels, was in founding and editing the anti-fascist magazine Expo. The Millennium trilogy was imbued with what he discovered in his journalism, even if considerably hyped. As for Mankell, he remains an activist: he was a participant in the Turkish-backed convoy that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza last spring. According to Barry Forshaw, author of a forthcoming survey entitled Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Mankell’s militancy is not an after-hours activity, but “the reason why he writes”.
Still, as Forshaw adds, all these authors “are much too clever to make their views too obvious and spoil the plots.” Certainly, the genre is hugely popular. At its apex are the two Swedes, Mankell and Larsson (who died in 2004). Mankell has sold more than 35m “Wallanders” worldwide, with numerous TV versions; meanwhile Larsson’s trilogy has sold 53m worldwide, has been filmed in Sweden and a Hollywood version is being completed for release in the autumn. The Killing has been shown throughout Europe since its success in Denmark in 2007: a second series will air in the UK in the autumn. The first series, shown on the niche BBC4 channel, scored higher ratings than the popular Mad Men.
So it is that the most striking commercial success in novel writing in the past five years has come from Marxists who write of people beset with misery who either commit or must deal with acts of extreme sadistic violence. It is not a development that a publisher or an agent would naturally have arrived at as a formula for success. So what explains its extraordinary appeal?
The Scandinavian states – Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, with Iceland as an honorary member – are small: their total population is less than 25m, with Sweden, at a little more than 9m, the largest. Though they differ widely, their “model” – one of high taxation funding comprehensive welfare and education, coupled with world-beating corporations – has roused envy and emulation, as have the orderliness of their civic life and the fluency of much of their population in foreign languages, especially English.
But this is an age where surface order is subject to interrogation and suspicion. Scandinavians often refer to the repression they visit on themselves to maintain appearances. In Denmark, Norway and now in Sweden, parties of the far right appeal to a significant swathe of voters, an appeal that centres on the rise of immigration from the Middle East, Africa and eastern Europe. The “model” looks differently from inside: on the left, it is seen as fatally compromised with capitalism; on the right, as having engendered passivity and conformity.
Sean French is the author of complex psychological thrillers – including Killing Me Softly – with his wife Nicci Gerrard, under the combined name of Nicci French. French is half-Swedish and speaks the language. He believes that part of the domestic success of the novels lies in their efforts to smash through the “stifling bureaucracy”, and to bring to the surface well-buried dark episodes in Sweden’s recent past.
“When I read the memoir of Ingmar Bergman [the Swedish film director, who died in 2007; Mankell is his son-in-law], I was shocked to discover he had wanted Hitler to win,” French says. “Sweden, before and during the second world war, was closely connected to Germany; the Nazi connection ran deep and continued after the war. There’s a huge hypocrisy in the country, with its commitment to peace and neutrality while it fosters a huge arms industry.
“After the war, the agreement that they would go for growth, retain a national consensus and – tacitly – bury the past worked very well. But it’s left a kind of scar … And in order to achieve that success it gave up division: so there’s agreement, or apparent agreement, on everything”.
Leif Pagrotsky, between 1997 and 2006 a minister in the previous Social Democratic government, agrees: “There is a repressed id, if you want to be Freudian about it. The people who were loud in the student societies before the war against Jewish doctors coming into the country, who were pro-German – not Nazi, but pro-German against the Bolsheviks – many of them went on to the top after the war, in business, in the judiciary. And it isn’t talked about … People who bring it up are frowned upon.”
The existence of a substratum of violent Nazism is one of Larsson’s major tropes. It also appears in Mankell’s novels, notably in 2000’s The Return of the Dancing Master, where a policeman (not Wallander for once) who has been diagnosed with cancer uncovers worlds of racism and neo-Nazism under the apparently liberal surface.
Svante Nycander was editor of the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter from 1979 to 1994. He argues that in Sweden liberal views are beset and harried from both right and left, and by a pervasive but subterranean fear that society has become too complex, too “modern”. “We are a small country,” he says. “We are not able to contain many opinions at the same time. Unlike the United States, the UK or France. We don’t have the sophistication that a long period of political debate and division gives. People in these big countries got used to differences. We are not used to them, we see them as wrong.”
In Denmark, location of the TV series The Killing, society is more evidently turbulent, with a less powerful liberal elite and a strongly left-right divided intellectual society, more akin to the US and the UK. The country’s Peoples’ party, led by the former nurse Pia Kjaersgaard, is strongly anti-immigration and has gained support in every election since the late 1990s.
In 2005, Denmark’s top-selling newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad – a move which, after it had been widely publicised by radical imams as an insult to Muslims, triggered riots and deaths in several Muslim countries, and still stands as a challenge to publishers everywhere on how far they are prepared to tolerate free debate on Islam. The Killing touches subtly on the popular resentment towards immigrants felt by many in the working class.
Certainly we can read the darkness, violence and anarchy that erupts in these crime novels as forming part of the subsoil of life in Scandinavian countries. The works of the Norwegian writers Jo Nesbø, KO Dahl and Karin Fossum, and of the Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason share a penchant for the dark side – and for heroes who have put themselves almost outside of society, with police work and a hopeless yet loyal dedication to duty the only link they have to organised life. In The Troubled Man, the ageing, weary Wallander gets drunk by himself in a restaurant, leaves his service pistol and is suspended from duty; in The Killing, detective inspector Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabøl) is fired from the case several times – only to crash her way back in, impelled by the obsessive belief that only she can follow the trail to the perpetrator.
Rigidity in maintaining surface order, the mark of the Scandinavian social democracies, needs to be breached violently by those who are, ultimately, on the side of order – otherwise it will be breached by the violence of those who would destroy it.
The exotic appeal of foreign fiction partly accounts for TV programmes such as The Killing finding audiences outside their native countries. But there are other elements that appear to have assisted the expansion of the Scandinavian bubble, including, as Forshaw points out, sex and violence, a well-known selling point everywhere. Larsson cheerfully admitted in e-mails to his publisher (seen by Forshaw, a biographer of Larsson) that he dwelt on sadistic passages to spice up the narrative, and though he [Larsson] knew very well that the far right existed and could be dangerous, still “he had to raise the whole thing to an operatic level in order to make it vivid”.
These books also chime with the widespread current view that conspiracies, hidden agendas, powerful subterranean forces are the real governing structures of the globe. This is shared by the far right and far left alike, and more vaguely subscribed to by a much broader range of opinion.
At the same time – as in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – the trappings of contemporary technology are much in evidence – with Larsson able to spend pages on the capacity of laptops.
In the final episode of The Killing – not to give away the all-important question of who is the murderer – Sarah Lund walks, at last, into daylight, alone and isolated, having alienated all who love her. In the last Wallander novel, the lonely inspector descends into the darkness that is Alzheimer’s. The politest English crime fiction – such as Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders – confines rottenness to errant individuals and order is restored; but in Scandinavian noir there is no tidying-up, no resumption of order other than a replacing of the sham facade.
Somehow, these gloomy, bitter books speak to something that we, also living in comfortable societies, want: a risk-free tour of misery, violence and disillusion, strung together in a powerful narrative. We beg for more, and are likely to get it.