“They don’t fulfil any function, the poor, the ones not needed in the factories, the ones not needed on the production line, in the care system, for cannon fodder, for brothel fodder, why has no one systematised this, an organised extermination of unnecessary lives.”
This startling suggestion for social progress seems right out of Nazi Germany. But the surprise for readers of Andrzej Tichý's visceral novel Wretchedness is that it is based in Sweden, a country usually regarded as a model of good governance and social equality.
Tichý’s subjects are the down-and-outs of his home city of Malmö, the addicts, the destitute, the prostitutes, the homeless, the children in care. Their voices join together in one mass polyphonic testimony that gives a searing depiction of the marginalised in one of the world’s most progressive societies. It makes for a fascinating read, the real-life details of which further bolster the fiction. Who knew, for example, that about 60,000 people in Sweden, most of them women, were sterilised under a state-approved racial-purity programme that continued until 1976?
This is nightmarish, impressionistic literature whose disjointed sentences have an associative flow that accumulates to a shocking whole
The rage over injustices of this ilk is evident throughout Wretchedness, which is Tichý's fifth novel but his first to appear in English. The translation by Nichola Smalley is deft and fluid, capturing the delirious pace of the book as it veers from one fragmented life to the next. This is nightmarish, impressionistic literature whose disjointed sentences have an associative flow that accumulates to a shocking whole. Written with furious verve, the collective experiences of the characters of Wretchedness leave a lasting impression.
The book has echoes of Jon McGregor's brilliant novel on homelessness and addiction, Even the Dogs, which won the Dublin Impac Award in 2012. Milkman by Anna Burns is another that comes to mind. All three of these novels give panoramic shots of societies where violence and deprivation are so ingrained as to seem normal.
The narrator of Wretchedness is a freelance musician who grew up a poor immigrant on the outskirts of Malmö before working his way into a better life. His story opens in conventional fashion, grounding the reader with a sense of place and purpose: “That last day – a Friday afternoon at the beginning of October – I was waiting for the guitarist and the composer down by the canal.”
While the musician waits, however, a chance meeting with a homeless man sends him spiralling back into the past, as a lifetime of suppressed violence, neglect and death catches up with him over the course of one long afternoon.
There are no paragraph breaks in Wretchedness, which heightens the sense of oppression
As he walks down the canal with his colleagues, his horrific interior thoughts and memories – “Laila, in pure desperation, cut her tongue out” – are contrasted with the lofty world of the musicians: “Speaking of Stimmung, how’s it going with the microtones?” For a while the narrator manages to balance both worlds, but the wretchedness of the past begins to overwhelm him as more memories come through.
Tichý is a clever writer, mirroring this disintegration in the text. There are no paragraph breaks in Wretchedness, which heightens the sense of oppression. Time warps, backdrops blur into each other – sometimes across countries – and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the voices telling their woes.
While at the beginning characters are introduced as old neighbours or friends, these connections become increasingly removed. Robi becomes Robi’s brother. Sanne, “who grew up in Copenhagen Central Station, raised by the johns on Halmtorvet”, later only appears in list format – “Soot, Dima, Becca, Sanne–and the others, Adi, Olga, Ponyboy, Lajo” – until ultimately the names disappear entirely, and the identities of these people are stripped away before our eyes.
The horrors, however, are singular: an episode where a paedophile preys on young boys by pretending to allow them to drive his car is a case in point. With devastating perception, Tichý relates the response of the victim: “It wasn’t fear the boy felt, more a diffuse discomfort … It wasn’t fear. It was uncertainty. About whether he was just imagining it all. About whether he was maybe enjoying it.”
The author was born in Prague to a Polish mother and a Czech father, and has lived in Sweden since 1981. He has written five novels and a short-story collection, in addition to non-fiction and criticism. His awards include being shortlisted for the 2016 August Prize and winning the 2018 Eyvind Johnson Prize. This English translation of Wretchedness will no doubt bring him a wider audience.
"What can I say?" is a question that gets asked in a number of different ways, each more despairing than the last
The grim world of the book is full of deliberate repetition, with the same sad stories of neglect weaved throughout, as with a fugue in musical composition. “What can I say?” is a question that gets asked in a number of different ways, each more despairing than the last. There is the sense that nobody is listening. In this powerful novel, Tichý asks his readers to open their ears.