Stieg Larsson and the dark side of the Swedish ideal

Sat, Apr 21, 2012, 01:00

ESSAYS:Before he wrote his bestselling Millennium trilogy, Larsson was a campaigning journalist. One of his main concerns was violence against women, a theme that became central to his Lisbeth Salander thrillers

NOT SINCE THE MAJOR bookshops of the West braced themselves to cope with the latest adventures of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter have we seen a phenomenon like Stieg Larsson. (Dan Brown was not in the same league.) And before that we probably go back to Dickens.

If any of Larsson’s 30 million aficionados see his name above this review and feel a hormonal urge to pleasure themselves again on the latest thriller from the Swedish author, they should forget it. This is not a tale of goths and meth heads; it is a book of short analytical essays dating from the 1980s, 25 in all, with an introduction by Tariq Ali.

There is, of course, another obvious reason why Larsson followers should not worry that they are missing out with this latest publication. The author died eight years ago. It seems the lift wasn’t working in his apartment block. So he took to the stairs, made it to the top and then keeled over, marvelling to his friend at the banality of it all. “I’m 50, for Christ’s sake!”

But there is hope yet for a book from beyond the grave. Still hidden in the cyberwomb of his former partner’s Apple Mac, there is rumoured to be a new thriller, a fourth baby waiting for delivery to a delighted publisher and thence to the millions who will queue to share in a last Salander orgy.

Meanwhile, we have only these essays to refresh the memory of this extraordinary writer, who died just before his first book was published and never thought much of his literary output anyway. “Writing thrillers is easy,” he said once in an interview. (I wish!) “It’s much harder to write a 500-word article where everything has to be 100 per cent correct.”

Larsson’s talent as an essayist, it should be said, does not rank with the brilliance displayed in his trilogy of tales about Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed, pierced, bisexual goth of the fiction series, and her randy sidekick, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist. In the novels, hastily written in two years to provide a pension for himself and his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, the author shows us a Sweden we never knew existed. This is not the land of socialist pieties and Protestant guilt that we imagine from the media shorthand of the past half-century. Larsson country is a land of crooked politicians, corrupt police and sex traffickers, a society moving carelessly and fearlessly to the right and casting aside the ideals we imagine they once held.

Larsson had something of a reputation as a crusading journalist in the two decades before his trilogy was published, single-mindedly campaigning to expose far-right extremism in Sweden. The essays in this collection come from that period and from his magazine Expo, based on the model of the anti-fascist British journal Searchlight, from which he drew inspiration and to which he occasionally contributed.

In these essays Larsson returns again and again to a theme central to the plots of his Millennium trilogy, violence against women on the part of men seeking to control their bodies or their morals. It is obvious, he writes, that the media reproduce a male point of view in their manner of reporting such violence and a racist colouring in how they report violence by and against immigrants.

In a lengthy and interesting discussion illustrating how ethnicity colours the perception of media reporting of violence, entitled Swedish and Un-Swedish Violence Towards Women, he contrasts the murders of two young Swedish women by significant men in their lives. Melissa was 22 when she resisted the demands of her older boyfriend, a Stockholmer with a criminal record and a past as a Hell’s Angel. She was tortured, choked and killed.

Two months later, Fadime, who was the same age, was shot by her father, who could not tolerate her escape from his control into independent womanhood. While Melissa’s murder could be turned into endless titillating comment on the sexual aspects of her killing, in the end hers was just another run-of-the-mill crime. It happens in Sweden all the time. And with a boyfriend like that, maybe she was asking for it.

Fadime was different. She was a Kurd, killed by a Kurd. She was also Swedish, of course, but her murder was explained as the sort of thing foreigners do, a product of her peculiar cultural-anthropological background.

This is how Swedish media explain immigrants, Kurds, Muslims, as carriers of non-Swedish values in a Sweden threatened by multiculturalism. “Stop gang rape – stop immigration” is the slogan of the racist Sweden Democrats party, founded in 1979 to combat the “anti-Swedish elites” of feminists, homosexuals and Marxists who are “sacrificing the Swedish people on the altar of multiculturalism”.

No one examined Melissa’s death as a cultural-anthropological phenomenon; that might expose the flaws in Swedish society and the systemic character of the violence against women that is tolerated in media and politics.

Violence against women, hate campaigns against homosexuals and Jews, and the spread of what Larsson calls “neo-spiritualist” beliefs such as I Ching (the Book of Changes), numerology and astrology: all represent a failure to look to class, status and power for an explanation of one’s life chances. The image he paints is not the pretty picture of the rational, fair-minded Sweden that we imagined before Larsson blew it apart in his novels. To be fair, he doesn’t spare Denmark and France the same rebuke, and had he lived longer he would surely have educated us about the Finns.

The danger for us in Ireland is that Larsson’s essays undoubtedly exaggerate for effect the evils of the Scandinavian model and ignore its virtues. By puncturing the myths of Protestant ethics and Swedish righteousness he leaves us with little to aspire to, only our Catholic ethics and ancient self-righteousness.


Bill McSweeney is research fellow in international peace studies at Trinity College Dublin