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Conversation in Tonopah
Per Olov Enquist

Translated by Peter Linton.
This article appeared in the 2004 Supplement.

Enquist often begins his plays, novels and short stories with short quotations and he uses them to give the reader a particular insight into the text that follows. In this case, the quotation seems to parallel the story of a traveler making new discoveries that are not exactly what he expected. During a trip to a small town in Nevada, the narrator talks with a young man who had visited Sweden; the conversation surprisingly reveals how differently we perceive our own countries.

“We’re in Asia,” I exclaimed, “on the coast of India, in the Malay archipelago, in the middle of Oceania! We have crossed half the globe and ended up at the Antipodes!”

“What about the compass?” replied my uncle.

“Ah yes, indeed, the compass,” I said, somewhat embarrassed. If we were to believe the compass, we had been heading north all this time.

“So it has been telling us lies?”

“Well, lies, I don’t know...”

“Unless this really is the North Pole!”

“The Pole! Surely not! but...”

But here was this inexplicable fact. I didn’t know what to think.

Jules Verne

From the desert, the road climbed straight as an arrow, a tough drive up to Tonopah, which lay at a height of more than 6000 feet.

It had snowed during the night. The car climbed slowly and almost imperceptibly to an area where snow lay on the ground. The snow swirled around us as if we had slowly drifted in between the mountains in a balloon. At first the colours were yellow and black, then white and yellow and grey, then just white. Tonopah itself was covered in a layer of slushy white snow a good foot in depth, and ahead of us some of the passes over the sierra had been closed.

Once there had been a town here in Tonopah, with 32 saloon bars and an opera house. Now there was nothing but faded, glumly moulting memories of a few fantastic and mind-blowing decades around the turn of the century, a flaking myth that fewer and fewer people tried to keep alive. During these spring days, the tiny mining communities deep inside Nevada – half of them closed down – made an attractive but melancholy impression. Everything was so distant from California and its riches, it was as if these tiny, rickety and crumbling little towns no longer had the energy to pretend that the dirt was just due to the spring slush – as if they no longer nursed the illusion that the grey, cracked and collapsing walls would one day be mended and painted, that the rubbish scattered about would be collected, that the decay would be stopped, and that their wealth, their seven years of plenty, would return once more to Tonopah.

But that wealth lay behind the mountain chain to the west, its warmth and luxury like an ever-present dream. It was so close. Hard to understand why all the younger people had not already been sucked into the inexorably tempting vortex that was California.

The pass had been blocked by snow. We had to change to winter tyres.

The man was perhaps twenty-five years old, blond, with his light hair tied in the back of his neck so that it hung straight down in a long ponytail. He worked quickly and cheerfully, talking the whole time as he worked. He said “Well, whaddya think?” I said “Think about what?” “About this goddam country you’re standing on. About its Constitution, its people, currency, taxes, state of the roads, geography and all that. Doncha have any opinions about that?” I answered evasively, “Well, it’s obviously hard for a Swede to sum up everything quickly...”

He replied, “So let me tell you about Sweden.”

I have always found questions like that difficult. What could I answer? Should I say “I like it here, I like Americans, I love your cheerfulness, your self-irony, but I can see that winter is coming, that the houses are rotting. Take your children with you and hide them, soon your time will be up, the termites are gnawing away, nothing has any solidity or durability, hide yourselves but don't rely on the timbers that once supported you. Avoid collapsing walls and teach yourselves how to survive.” But I knew it was easier to hear the termites in other people’s houses. At the same time, I might also learn something – learn that this is how people teach themselves to survive the winter. It will be the same for you. So – pay attention.

He changed the tyres, and while doing so he told us about the very peculiar Swedish city of Gothenburg.

Somewhat upset, he said “There’s me, arriving by boat in your Swedish city of Gothenburg. It’s the summer of 1972, and I had decided to stay there a while and get to know it. My uncle had been in Gothenburg during the war, got a girl pregnant, got out of town, but he always said what a great place it was. That kid must be a relative of mine, and around the same age as me. Whaddya call a cousin in Swedish? Kusin? So – there’s me, knowing damn all about Sweden apart from this, but I know I admire the country.”

When I went to school in Portland I went on a couple of demonstrations against the Vietnam war, and that’s a big deal for a kid from Tonopah, but nobody here found out about it, luckily enough. But OK, I know what I think about the war.

So I go ashore, and walk a couple of hundred yards on Swedish soil. Along come a couple of guys, my age, looking friendly, Swedish of course. They give me leaflets in Swedish, so I ask them to translate. They do, and it’s all about the war. I tell them I’m against the war, and I share their view entirely. But don’t think they welcome me with open arms or anything like that. They’re, like, really icy, saying I’m dodging the issue, I’m personally responsible, all Americans are personally responsible for the war, and they should go home and put a stop to it. So I ask them if I can’t have a beer first, and they say this is nothing to joke about, and leave. After they've gone, I get so angry I could die, but I contain myself. I take a bus into town, sit down in a park and try to calm down.

Along comes a friendly elderly gent who sits down on the bench. He is poor and unshaven, but obviously a nice guy and friendly. At last a real typical Swede, I say to myself. We start to talk, and he knows quite a lot of English. Then this sweet old man asks if I will buy a bottle of wine for him. There is a wine shop just round the corner, he says. As I was young, it would be really nice of me to go, he says, looking tired. “I’m so darn tired myself,” he says, true enough. And he gives me a 10-kronor note.

He also points out the way.

So I go to the wine shop in this Swedish city of Gothenburg, stand in the queue in this nice shop, and buy two bottles of white wine for this fine old gentleman, though I had to throw in a coupla kronor myself. And then I go back, and just as I’m handing over the bag, the whole goddam Swedish police army attack me from behind, grab me by the arms, shove me into the car, even though I’m resisting, and drive me to the police station. They tell me the old gentleman can’t have his bottles, I’m a goddam scumbag and criminal, I should be deported straightaway and go back to Tonopah where I came from. That makes me really mad so I yell some home truths at them about the Swedish dictatorship. They shove me into a cell, I stay there for three hours, and then they start to question me again. Then they let me out without any explanation. There was no sign of the old gent, but they probably killed him straight away.

As soon as I’m free, I catch a ferry to Denmark, and I stay there for two months. Ten hours I spent in Sweden – me who had planned to spend the whole summer there.

In Tonopah, the sun was shining and the air was fresh and invigorating. “So,” I said to him, “what did you think of Sweden then?”

He’d finished putting on the tyres. He stood there for a moment, laughing, showing even white teeth, and seemed to be enjoying himself. “What I thought?” he said. The sun was shining on Tonopah, the air was warmer, the snow had begun to melt. “Soon you won’t be needing your snow tyres,” he said, looking at me closely, then looking up towards the mountain pass. “Waste of money.” The desert down there in the valley was glistening, a faint yellow colour. “Now, if you wait an hour, the snow will melt up there. Go get a bite to eat, then come back again. If the sun’s still shining, I’ll change the tyres back again.”

I came back later. The sun was shining, it was very warm, he laughed uproariously and changed to summer tyres. “Perhaps I’ll go again next year,” he said pensively, “by then they’ll have forgotten the war over there in Europe, then it’ll be easier to be an American, doncha think?” We exchanged addresses and talked about the Swedish archipelago, and shook hands as if we had vowed eternal friendship. It was just like in the Soviet Union after a couple of vodkas. “They’re not called wine shops,” I said, “they’re called Systembolaget, the Swedish alcohol monopoly.” He listened attentively. “And whaddya think of this place?” he said.

I had thin shoes on, and my feet were freezing. Once there had been a mine, thirty-two saloons and an opera house here. He looked at me, friendly but challenging. “Whaddya think? About how things are for us?”

He wouldn’t give way. He wanted to know. Tonopah was bathed in sunshine, when the snow melted everything turned black. I said “So this is where you plan to live your life?” He nodded calmly, and asked “You gotta better idea?” “No,” I said, “not at all.”

Then we drove up over the mountain pass. Everything went well. I tried to imagine his next journey to Sweden.

He would take the road from Skellefteå to Burträsk. He would stop over in Hjoggböle, and someone would tell him about the country, and what things were like, and he would look around and ask, “So this is where you plan to live your life?” And someone would nod and reply “Yes.”