[Images: Unsplash, Wikimedia Commons, Atria Books, Vintage, Flickr]

Books Without Borders – Sweden

Sweden has long been the birthplace of those that have this great gift for putting pen to paper. The beautiful backdrop of great rocky mountainous planes provides an environment for prodigious writers to express themselves, progressing over time from parchment to paper.

Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People is an example of a brilliant modern piece of Swedish literature that sets a story with undertones that remain simplistic. It’s impressive how Backman can create such intriguing characters and a plot out of the simple idea of selling a property. Something we as students come to experience but could never see the proposition of making a novel out of such a drab necessity. It brings me back to a book titled Stoner, by John Williams. On the surface, Anxious People is a seemingly uninteresting story of an ordinary Joe who is studious but hardly ever revered. Yet it somehow reveals itself as this fantastic read, a skill where only great writers, can take mastery over and exploit for their works.

Many Swedish novels, with Backman’s work being no exception, explore humanity and several issues found in our society. They get to the right crux of these problems from the onset. This becomes obvious to readers, as the novels become, in a way, far more philosophical and introspective than would be expected from a story that outlines an assumedly dull topic.

Stieg Larsson, another contemporary, continues this tradition with the thought-provoking The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It is an excellent example of this social commentary-type novel, but is seldom dull, rather, extremely intense. It’s rightly one of Sweden’s most renowned novels of all time. The New York Times argued that the book looks not to paint a pretty picture of Swedish society but rather a genuinely off-putting crooked one, particularly the “ugly view of human nature, especially when it comes to the way Swedish men treat Swedish women”.  A commonality of this book is sadism, murder and suicide. It’s really not the most comfortable and easy-going read with such distressing central themes, but in the same way, they’re themes that must be tackled in literature.

Larsson’s world peels back the optimistic ideas about how far humanity has come, and really investigates the ugly tendencies of human society.

The book also mirrors Margaret Atwood’s works, where she writes on similar themes of a world choked with evil in The Handmaid’s Tale. Larsson’s world is crueller than Atwood’s with vivid imagery of the scourge of evil, and little room for a sprinkle of wit or humorous device, as Atwood often employs. Larsson’s world peels back the optimistic ideas about how far humanity has come, and really investigates the ugly tendencies of human society. In this world that is moulded on our own, we must understand it isn’t just a work of fiction but a take on life as we know it today, despite being written over 20 years ago. The takeaway from the novel is a seemingly egalitarian notion that gender is little more than a label, and is not central to us as living, breathing people with histories that surpass this identity.

It has seen many subsequent releases following the trilogy’s success, becoming a number one bestseller almost overnight with 100 million copies sold internationally and accompanied by a movie adaption of the same name, which was well-received. The story deals with themes of sexual violence, fascistic ideology and corruption. Each page, no matter how visceral or off-putting, prompts readers to ponder the conditions of our society. Larsson’s words famously envelope readers in a cruel world that our protagonist is shoved into, focusing upon a culture of sexual violence towards women.

We can only hope that this won’t be a matter of continuity for years to come.

Ultimately, what links a lot of Swedish novels so spectacularly is their want to illustrate the workings of the world and paint a picture that does not glorify Sweden and those picturesque landscapes. Instead, they provide thought-provoking commentaries on how we can comprehend the environmental beauty alongside the ugly side of the world. At the same time, where humanity is disjointed, corrupted, and cruel, there is often some attempt at a conclusion and resolution. However, it is not as often found in recent Swedish works, as we are still toiling with these same issues many decades later. We can only hope that this won’t be a matter of continuity for years to come.


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