This article appeared in the 2009:2 issue.
The American House, Sven Olov Karlsson’s second novel, was published to great acclaim in 2008, with one critic writing that it offered the most compelling depiction of modern rural life in Sweden in generations. The demoralised and run-down former industrial town of Eriksfors is the atmospheric setting for a revenge drama: the release from prison of Eddy Mood, who has served twenty years for murder, to the family home built by ancestors grown rich in America, brings long-suppressed tensions and anxieties to the surface.
The following chapters are taken from the opening of the novel, as Eddy emerges from prison and reflects on the events of his youth that ruined his seemingly assured future as a dairy farmer and herdsman.
Sven Olov Karlsson is an author and journalist. Originally from Västmanland, he now lives in Stockholm. He is one of seven novelists who recently published the ‘Manifesto for a New Literary Decade’, a translation of which follows this extract (see page10).
He pulled on his usual work clothes, even though he hadn’t worked for months. The blue trousers, Iceland sweater and the cap given away by the Post and Credit Bank. How he dressed was important. Not just if he was going to do what he was thinking of doing; he wanted everything to be the same as usual, even if he didn’t do it.
Outside was the sort of November dawn that makes people take refuge in absolutely anything, fasting diets or asbestos removal or iodine tablets. Or divorces or crystal healing or new potions from behind the bus-shelter in the village.
Or trying something like this.
His body did its usual thing, more or less. Peed and flushed. Lit the stove, made coffee. But the body can’t hold things together on its own. So the young man missed the toilet a bit more than usual. The clock-radio crackled between the national and local stations, and through the static the newsreader announced the Prime Minister’s visit to the Soviet Union, and that it was unclear whether or not he would be raising the subject of submarine incursions into Swedish waters.
The coffee pot fell to the floor with a crash that made his head hurt. Shards of glass and coffee grounds splattered across the flowered cork matting. He didn’t wipe it up. Left the pieces where they were. Getting dressed was more than enough. His toes got caught up in his long johns. His belt got twisted.
Not only had he lain awake all night thinking. He’d also got up at half past three, when he still hadn’t got to sleep, and pulled the Merkel shotgun out from its hiding-place.
The sleepless night hung in his mind like scratches in a film, full of jump-cuts: now and then different faces would flicker past in second-long glimpses.
And he himself, staring like a moron.
The landscape was flushed with fog, it could have been anywhere at all. The expensive pine doors of the kitchen cabinets looked tacky today. From the top of the year-old brown fridge, the mail-order porcelain cats smiled down at him. Chosen by the woman who had also made the flowery curtains and hung the rectangular pine lamp from ornate wrought-iron supports. The most recent change, however, was the overall mess and shabbiness. Grease stains, yellowing newspapers and empty food wrappers everywhere.
His own rubbish, his own loss of order. His own fault.
The vodka went down fine, but he didn’t feel like the last of the coffee. He snatched up the Merkel and the car keys and went out. The smoke from the chimney melted together with the sky. The mist licked at his face. The yard seemed to get narrower, the farm office was gently bobbing about. That was presumably because he had lain awake yet another night. And because of the three shots of alcohol.
The car windows were misted up, the headlights dull with dirt. He picked up a piece of clinker as big as a turnip from the grass.
You can still change your mind, he thought. You haven’t done anything at all. Go back to bed. But do the milking first. They’re making a right noise, moaning like they’re hurt.
He took a couple of steps towards the red, sheet-metal structure framing the yard, dropped the rock. Turned back. The sound of animals was in his mind, it all was. The barn was empty these days. How could he have forgotten that?
It was easier to carry on now. A slightly smaller but similar blue rock was a better fit in his fist.
He managed to smash the lights on the finned Mercedes Benz without cutting himself at all. Even though the glass was thicker than he had expected. Kicked three times until his boot left an obvious dent in the grill. As if the accident he was about to report had really happened. As if it hadn’t happened on purpose.
Behind the wheel he took a couple of breaths of the car’s petrol smell. The sweetish stench made him feel like he was about to go on a job, no more than that. He switched the engine on. Above the patient rattle of the diesel the cows were still moaning inside his head. When anxiety failed to kick in, his body set the well-preserved vehicle in motion. It struck the young man that he felt good.
Good, maybe even respectable. In spite of everything.
For years he’s been thinking about what to do when he gets his freedom back. One option is simply to disappear. Not bother getting anywhere to live, not even get a mobile phone, even though every homeless person these days seems to have at least one.
No, just set to work drinking. Become a drunk somewhere where no one knows and no one cares. Once upon a time he was damn good at drinking. That’s probably what most people like him do when they’re released. Give themselves up into the firm grip of the bottle or the cold embrace of drugs.
Another option is to aim a couple of notches up from that. Drink a bit less. Or not at all. A flat, some sickness benefit, and a bit of forestry money from home. Live still as a statue. Deal with his independence like a helping of exotic food that might never be cool enough to eat. Every sensible choice involves not going back to Västmanland. And definitely not to Eriksfors.
But now the day has arrived, a blustery, late-winter’s day, slippery underfoot. And he’s been thinking, but not acting. In spite of the social worker’s coaxing, he hasn’t organised anywhere to live, nor tried to sort himself out.
He’s been thinking.
He had been out on remission a few times, of course. And naturally he’s tried to keep up with the way of the world. But finally getting out is still much more frightening than he imagined. The morning sky presses like cold steel on his forehead. The wind bites through his tight 80s leather jacket as he ambles from the gate to the bus stop. He’s given away or chucked almost everything that he has collected over the years. The suitcase is still annoyingly heavy. His face is rigid as a nesting box. It’ll take time to get used to things. He’s never been abroad, but maybe this is what being in a foreign country is like. You think that everything’s worse than it is in Sweden. Or better. Or weirder. Mind you, this is Sweden.
A couple of fat teenage boys and a woman emaciated by chain-smoking are also waiting for the bus. Presumably they live in the houses over the hill. They don’t seem bothered by him at all. They’re probably used to people like him. Or else he looks just like your average Swede.
That’s hardly true. You’ve been locked away for two decades, he thinks. You haven’t got a job or a career. No woman. No children. No future. And can what you’ve been through even be referred to as a ‘past’? You’ve wasted all those years on the pastimes of the incarcerated. Poker and eating and too little weight-lifting. Gave up chewing tobacco, then started again, and did circuits of the yard. Got a bit flabby and stiff.
He stuffs his fists in his jacket pockets. The wind rattles the adverts for 3-G phones. The woman lights a Hobson. The podgy youths muck about, shoving at each other. It’s all making his skin crawl. No one pays him any attention. That irritates him. The woman’s drawn cheeks suck on the cigarette. The sound of the cigarette burning brings him out in a cold sweat.
‘Slag,’ one of the boys shouts after a shove from the other.
The shrill yell makes him start. His legs wobble; he must look as if he’s about to dance a little jig in honour of the occasion. Does anyone notice that he’s twitchy? Maybe the woman, she keeps looking in his direction. And the two little bastards move away a bit before they start shoving each other again.
‘I didn’t mean it,’ laughs one of the fat little sods.
‘I’m gonna get you,’ his opponent chortles.
Although the man is shivering, a suffocating heat is bubbling through him. Please, let the bus come soon. But God knows if it’ll be any better on the bus, a filthy vessel soiled by countless grubby passengers. What if the bus smells so bad that he feels travel-sick? Dried vomit and sweaty winter boots, rancid breath and unwashed genitals, a thick, disgusting gloop that’s already making him dizzy and panicky.
What if it’s the other way round? Maybe his fellow passengers will think he smells? A body that’s spent years serving time. People who live in damp houses rarely notice how bad they smell. Perhaps he smells of the institution without knowing it? The smoking room, grubby bed-linen and canteen food. You never know.
In his jacket pocket, the keyring is heavy with responsibility for forgotten padlocks, jammed doors and lost bikes. He’s only sure of two of the keys. One is for a car that was scrapped years ago. The other is an Assa key, still shiny and sharp.
He studies the key. The row of notches matches a single mirror image that’s somewhere else entirely. The noise of an engine makes him start again, as the bus curtsies beside the bus stop. He buys a ticket, made clumsy by the fact that the driver is African.
A lot had happened in the autumn of 1983 that needed to be discussed. In the fullness of time the two friends would get round to it, preferably without Magnus’s younger brother listening in. When the friends had done something together, afterwards there was often an atmosphere that made it easier to talk. Something like clipping hooves, or trying to find the fault in an electric fence. Or removing trees toppled by the wind. Or like today, with the boat.
The little harbour in Eriksfors had only just frozen over. At the entrance, the faster current was steaming like giants’ breath. On the jetty stood the 29-year-old owner of the American House, Eddy Mood, his friend Magnus Rytter, and the latter’s younger brother, Stefan. The three of them were staring at the Rytters’ old rowing-boat. Eddy towered over the brothers. Ten-year-old Stefan was huddled inside his blue quilted jacket with red stripes. The boat had drifted out just before the ice set.
‘We noticed it yesterday,’ Magnus shivered. ‘Dad thinks someone untied it on purpose. But...’
Old Rytter certainly had a lot of enemies, which was why no one had informed the Manor that the boat was adrift. That was why it had been left to ice up in peace. The harbour was in the middle of the village, plenty of people must have seen the boat drifting.
But their father was starting to lose it. Rune Rytter had been the last one out in the boat, and may well have been a bit sloppy tying it up. Their dad’s time-consuming habit of forgetting things was also why the family had neglected to pull the boat out with the tractor before winter. The boat was built of oak from the Rytter estate. As a child, Magnus had passed many summers in the dark-brown boat, and was very fond of it. Maybe it could still be saved. Unless the ice had split the keel.
The village beside the harbour had actually grown up by accident.
In the summer of 1714 some burn-beating Finns had set fire to a cluster of slender alders and birch trees. They had cut the trunks the previous year, to let the wood dry out. To begin with the fire burned nicely. But suddenly the wind blew up. A shower of sparks sprayed out just where Erkki Arkko was standing in the line. He was the youngest of them, twelve-years-old, and this was his first burn. He didn’t have time to rake away the moss and twigs before the flames caught hold. It wasn’t intentional. But the fire leapt from ground to scrub, from scrub to tree. From tree to tree. Up to the sky. Erkki cried for help. The grown-ups rushed over but there was nothing they could do. The fire raced away from the area they were contracted to burn, and the flames caught hold of the estate’s mature pine trees.
The forest burned for days. Until the whole of Erkki’s world smelled of ash and smoke.
All manner of creatures fled, deer and elk, foxes and badgers. Wrens and crows. Wild dogs and forest cats. Gentry and paupers, all mixed up together. When it was over, it was really over. Each pine tree the equivalent of almost a whole year’s wages for the boy. Erkki Arkko would never be able to repay the debt to the estate.
According to the story, the fire gave the old estate-owner Gottfried Rytter a fit of rage almost like epilepsy. He was a short man, swarthy as a field vole, with a demonic sense of humour. After him, the Manor’s name and property had been passed down the centuries, and now Magnus Rytter stood next in line. The ironworks had been wound down and demolished a generation before. But the Manor was still the Manor. And the Rytters were still the Rytters.
From far away floated the shrill sound of a dog barking. Eddy, Magnus and young Stefan peered down at the ice. Would it take their weight? Stefan’s cheeks were rosy, the boy licking his lips at regular intervals.
His big brother Magnus made a sceptical ‘O’ with his thick lips, and stuck a Marlboro in his mouth. In his wooden-soled gumboots he was one metre, seventy centimetres tall. Thin dark hair stuck out from beneath his woolly hat. High forehead, round cheeks. A stubby, turned-up nose and eyes brown as good growing soil. The face would have fitted a sailor on a postcard from Marseilles.
Eddy Mood, by contrast, had a drawn look to him, no round edges at all, apart from the top lip bulging with chewing tobacco. A strong, protruding jaw. A jag for a nose. Green, close-set eyes. Heavy stubble darkened his cheeks. His hair fiery red. The hairdresser had cut it short on top and at the sides, but left curls at the back, in the modern style. His fringe peeped out from beneath a new cap advertising the Post and Credit Bank. Eddy Mood was a head taller than Magnus, with a sturdy frame. His long arms stuck out of his bright orange acrylic jacket. His navvy’s hands were bare of gloves.
Don’t imagine that the forest fire of 1714 drew any attention from outside the immediate vicinity.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a veil of soot hung over the whole of the Bergslagen region in the heart of Sweden. There was practically no form of human activity that did not produce smoke. The ironworks burned day and night. The forests reeked of charcoal stacks. The Finns burned the ground. The Walloons constructed hammer mills wherever there was enough water to dam up to power them.
Old ways of living slipped away. More changed in two hundred years than in the previous two thousand. Winding paths became roads. Mud dens and shacks were replaced by houses. Crofts became farms. Grinding poverty eased. The creatures that had shared the earth with humankind since the Stone Age withered away: trolls and elves. Pixies and gnomes. Sirens and witches. Villages spread like stains on a sheet, despoiling the wilderness with progress and civilisation. Magic grew old and shrivelled away, until it was only a defence mechanism for the poorest and most ignorant.
Where Erkki Arkko’s burn had gone out of control, yet another waterfall was uncovered. The water fell from high above, a useful source of energy. With a snide grin, works owner Gottfried Rytter named the place after the Finnish boy who had let the fire burn out of control. Eriksfors, ‘Erik’s Force’.
The water was dammed up to drive a tilt-hammer.
Eddy Mood glowered at the iced-in boat, and Magnus Rytter shrugged his narrow shoulders. Neither of them had time for this. But there was no one else Magnus could ask for help. It was a good thing it was never too hard to persuade Eddy.
Magnus suggested that he could fetch the tractor with the winch from the Manor. They could use that to pull the boat up. Eddy Mood shook his head. It would take too long. Why not pull the boat up by hand? Surely that had been done before? And both of them had done harder jobs than this, during military service, if nothing else.
‘The oars are in the boathouse, aren’t they? Magnus, I’ll go out to the bloody thing, break the ice with an oar and punt it ashore. It’s soon done.’
Eriksfors had grown up around the never-ending beat of the hammer. Not only was the village named after Erkki Arkko, but also a building. To be more precise, the timber barn where the failed burn-beater hung himself in an alcoholic stupor some fifteen years after the fire.
Not that his suicide aroused much interest in 1729. A lot of people died of all manner of unnatural causes. Apart from the wretches who did themselves in, people died in drunken fights, or were murdered. The years wound around men who were found beaten to death, girls transformed into buried corpses, swollen faces, blood-stained kirtles.
In 1854 the works at Eriksfors became a limited company. The workers crept like shadows through the smeltworks, directing the melt and letting the pig iron solidify. Eriksfors modernised. By the turn of the century the brick chimneys of the new smeltworks reached for the skies. Poker-straight clinker walls and a black-tarred roof.
While two world wars and economic crises rumbled past beyond the trees, the little community developed around the two towers. Barracks teeming with children. A coal store described in the newspapers as the largest timber building in Sweden. A squeaking aerial ropeway carried the ore to the sintering works at the Manor.
Even a new church was built, out of reach of the smoke. The burgeoning churchyard was filled with hands that had let go of their tongs and hammers. With eyes that had seen the melt overflow. With hearts that had suffered enough. With breasts that remembered the greedy mouths of infants.
With aching backs and worry and calluses and melancholy.
The oar looked spindly in Eddy’s hands as he set out. Rat-brown curls of smoke hung above the Manor. In the other direction the sharp silhouette of the American House stuck up on the edge of the forest. The further out on the ice Eddy went, the more clearly he could feel the presence of the water beneath the surface. He sensed the depth, somewhere he didn’t belong. And his footing seemed increasingly treacherous.
Just as he reached the boat, the ice gave way beneath him with a crack. Dull, almost mocking.
In the eighteenth century, an adult burn-beating Finn in Eriksfors seldom weighed more than sixty kilos, but might have up to a dozen children; the women’s faces were worn away by countless pregnancies. Now, in the 1980s, the average weight of an adult male in the village was eighty kilos. Most people had at most one or two children. Murder was something you only read about or saw on television. Nothing much ever happened here at all any more.
Eddy Mood weighed ninety-six kilos when he fell into the water. A quite ordinary lad, who had started a dairy business on the family property, the American House. He hauled himself up into the boat. Water streaming from his legs. And Rytter hadn’t baled out the boat, so the bottom was full of ice, framing padlocks and chains, like a film still. His weight forced the boat free of the ice with a groan.
Eddy swung the oar like an axe. Now that he was soaking wet, there was some urgency. And there was no way he could walk back. He smashed a channel, and punted the boat to the end of the water. Started smashing again. The ice seemed thicker. Or was Eddy just getting tired? The oar bounced. He fished up the rope that was tied to the keel.
‘Magnus, come here. Get the end of the rope. Give it a pull while I push with the oar. That should do it!’
His teeth were chattering in his flushed face. His boots were squelching. Drawing the boat out had seemed like a dereliction of duty to start with. But Eddy had turned it into an adventure, in order to save time, or to be macho. And now the day had ended up being difficult. Not to say dangerous.
Young Stefan looked on as the heir to the Manor left dry land.