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from The Practice of Murder

Kerstin Ekman
Translated by Sarah Death, Anna Paterson, Linda Schenck, and Rochelle Wright. Introduction by Rochelle Wright.

This article appeared in the 2010:1 issue.

Kerstin Ekman, from The Practice of Mu8rderIn Stockholm on 12-14 February 2010, Kerstin Ekman met with a group of nine translators to discuss her two most recent books, Herrarna i skogen (Masters of the Forest) and Mordets praktik (The Practice of Murder). In preparation for this workshop, each participant was asked to translate the same excerpt from each work into her own language; English, German, Danish, Finnish, and Italian were represented. The four translators working with English were evenly split between UK and US idiom, with Sarah and Anna representing the former and Linda and Rochelle the latter. Since all four were also involved in various capacities with the Ekman feature in this issue of Swedish Book Review, they decided to attempt a combined, collaborative version of the excerpt from The Practice of Murder as part of the project. The goal was to find agreement and consensus, as far as possible, with regard to everything from word choice to style; it was agreed that Rochelle would serve as coordinator and be responsible for the final version of the text. Due to constraints of time and geography, a face to face meeting and discussion was not possible in advance of the workshop, but a lively exchange ensued via e-mail. Needless to say, some compromises were necessary, and no doubt none of the translators is completely satisfied with every formulation in the finished product. The collaboration was nevertheless fruitful, and the coordinator believes this version of the text is superior to any of the individual efforts.

To date, the rights to Mordets praktik have been sold to five other countries, but none in the English-speaking world.

The novel concerns a physician, Pontus Revinge, who believes he is the model for Hjalmar Söderberg’s eponymous protagonist in Doctor Glas. Yet he appears, rather, to emulate Söderberg’s character, as the following excerpt reveals. English-language quotations from the Söderberg novel within the Ekman text are taken, with minor emendations, from the translation by Rochelle Wright: Doctor Glas (Madison: Wisconsin Introductions to Scandinavia, 1998).

Three weeks have gone by and nothing has happened except that we’ve buried Johannes Harms. I say ‘we’ because I have been involved in all the arrangements following his death. Frida and her mother needed my help. Nothing unforeseen or alarming has occurred and no questions have been asked.

In other words, there is no reason whatsoever to destroy these papers. I managed to fit all the pages I have written into a large envelope. Since I had a compelling sense that this chapter was complete, it amused me to give it a title. I also put a heading on another envelope, as yet empty. Once you begin regarding your life as a novel, you may as well divide it into chapters. But what would be the title of my long opening chapter? I don’t know. Since it is unwritten, it remains diffuse.

In recent years there has been a great to-do about a subterranean level of the soul of which, in the light of day, our conscious selves are oblivious. It is said to harbor fears, desires, and impulses to act that the rational, principled individual does not wish to acknowledge. That may well be. But it is also apparent that certain acts may not seem entirely real to the perpetrator.
When my father was serving time at the county jail he reported that everyone around him denied having committed the crimes for which they were convicted. They protested vehemently that they were not guilty of indecent exposure, of setting fire to the woodbin, of illicit relations with a retarded daughter. No one had murdered his wife or stolen the choir’s cash box. My father surveyed these denials with a superior air, but to his dying day he swore that his own conviction was a miscarriage of justice. He seems, in fact, to have viewed long-term embezzlement as simply reinvesting funds for the good of the firm. That he happened to borrow a small sum now and then, since the money was already out of circulation, was merely a distracted, harmless sideline to dealings that were otherwise irreproachable.
My mother did not contradict him, of course, nor did I.
When I scrutinize myself it is to avoid becoming like him.

I’ve never seen such a summer. Hot and sultry since mid-May. All day long a thick, inert cloud of dust hovers over the streets and squares. Only in the evening do people rouse themselves a bit. I took an after-dinner walk just now, as I do almost every day after visiting patients; there aren’t many now during the summer. A cool, steady breeze blows in from the east, the cloud lifts, wafts slowly away and lingers as a long, red veil off to the west. No noise from the work carts any longer, just an occasional cab and the bell of the tram.

I read these uncanny words again and again. How could he have such insight into my life, months, even years in advance? It’s accurate, every bit of it. The weather is hot and muggy. A stench rises from the sewers, but naturally he doesn’t mention that. He doesn’t want to disturb the delicate film that overlays his reality, making it melancholy and beautiful.
But it is as though he gained access to my life, to my innermost recesses, where the future lay waiting to unfold. Only the most superficial details have been altered. And he calls his hero Glas. I know where that comes from. Prose as clear as glass. That’s how I described his two books when we met at the restaurant. Nowadays I have some sense of how writers find inspiration in chance encounters.

Even then he must have seen straight into me. That was why he made the apparently tactless remark that I, as a medical man, must always carry potassium cyanide in my pocket. He wasn’t alluding to the suicidal thoughts of a failure when he quoted Strindberg’s spiteful words. What he saw in me was something completely different.
How far may a writer go in his probing into the life and secrets of another human being? Only now does it occur to me that in Doctor Glas he refers to Samuel Smiles’ book on self help through application and perseverance. It was as if he knew I owned it. Had he been into my room? Bribed the landlady?

The hot, humid weather did not agree with Johannes Harms. On his way up the stairs he panted more heavily than usual, and his face was deeply flushed when he finally made it to the top. But he was unwilling to forego his pleasures. On Saturday, July 20 I saw him enter Azorelli’s cigar shop, and I’m quite certain he continued one flight up to what he called ‘the girlie establishment.’ I hurried home. In due course I readied myself for supper with the Harms family. I was now taking both midday and evening meals there. He claimed this was so I could be on call if someone became ill; he had national as well as local line service while I had no telephone. I think the real reason for these compulsory meals with the family was to give him an excuse to withhold part of my salary.
He was late. Elsa Harms told the maid to take out the cold cuts again, complaining that the soufflé would fall and be cold. I thought to myself that she shouldn’t call her baked egg dishes soufflés. They were dry and leathery from the start.

Frida sat daydreaming at the piano. Although this was several weeks ago, I remember quite clearly that she was playing ’The Maiden’s Prayer’. The piece was far too difficult for her, but her mother forced her to practice it anyway. Ever since Frida’s confirmation, she has been drawing attention to the girl’s virginity in distasteful ways. Soon the merchandise will be offered to the highest bidder.
Finally we heard Harms’ heavy footsteps on the stairs. Every so often he stopped, presumably to rest, and then with great effort continued. When he stepped into the hallway we could hear his keys jangle. He was clearly on his way to the consulting room, which was locked. Even from a distance his breathing sounded labored.

‘Go and see how he is,’ Elsa Harms said sharply.
In this family I am not treated with the respect a physician ordinarily expects. Instead I am ordered about. Frida continued clinking away at the piano as I went out into the hallway. The glass-paned door to the consulting room stood ajar.
Harms lay slumped across the examining table. He seemed intoxicated, grinning at me and pointing to his key ring, which he had dropped on the floor.
‘This damned angina,’ he said.
I realized he had been on his way to the medicine cabinet. For a moment I stood in front of it with the keys. There were a lot of them. Then I turned around and said:
‘Never mind, that would take too long. Have one of mine instead.’
It was that simple.
I held out the box. When he saw the contents he said:
‘I see, pills. It’s all about rounding and rolling these days.’
He took a pill. I gave him some water to wash it down. He asked something else, whether I took the medicine myself, but I did not reply.
I will now be completely frank. I did not want to look at him.
Quickly I left the consulting room, closing the door with the glass panes, and waited outside. I heard a thud when he fell to the floor.
For a few moments everything seemed to be suspended in midair. It had both happened and not happened. I could return to the dining room, sit down and remove my napkin from its ring. This instant seemed to float weightless in eternity, and as yet nothing had any significance.
Then I started to giggle. It was entirely involuntary and I could not get a grip on myself. I had to take out my handkerchief and hold it in front of my mouth when Elsa Harms came in from the dining room, wondering why her husband was delayed.
‘Wait a moment,’ I said.
I went back into the consulting room, locking the door behind me. She pounded on it, shouting, but I paid no attention. I had to be sure that things were in order. He was lying on the floor. His face had turned blue and his eyes, with their bleary whites, were staring straight up. I bent over and felt his neck for a pulse. His heart had stopped.
It was that simple.
Naturally I couldn’t lift his heavy body onto the table by myself so I left him lying there. Later I’d make Holmlund, the caretaker, help me. First, however, I had to see that everything was in order and nothing seemed suspicious. I remembered the medicine cabinet and went to unlock it. When I located the right key it crossed my mind that everything would have been different if I had put my hand on it this quickly a moment ago.
Once the door of the cabinet was open, I could go out and tell Elsa Harms I had found his medicine there. It occurred to me that it must be in liquid form – hence his comment about rounding and rolling. I searched among the bottles in the cabinet until I found the right one. The label read:

Sol. nitroglyc Spir.
(1%) gutta sol. 20
Aq. destill. 200.0
MDS 1 tablespoon 3 x daily

I went over and placed it beside his outstretched right hand, clenched in a fist. When I let Elsa Harms into the room, I pointed to the bottle and said:
‘He didn’t have time to take his medicine.’

These days she wears mourning, a black dress and a collar with long tips. When she goes out she places a widow’s veil of coarse tulle over her black felt hat, which now has white trim along the inside of the brim. She wears jewelry made of jet and black cloth gloves.
I assume this is a show of grief, though she feels grief no more than I feel guilt.

I felt no guilt. There is no guilt. The shiver was the same sensation I sometimes feel from solemn, majestic music or solitary, elevated thoughts.

It’s true that guilt does not exist. But I experienced no shiver. The sensation wasn’t as solemn as majestic music. What I felt, rather, was a nervous amusement. Tyko Glas’ days and nights of pondering, the debate of his two internal voices, his prolonged indecisiveness – these are products of the author’s imagination, nothing else. His creator must brood obsessively. Presumably he himself is incapable of action. He let Tyko Glas proclaim: I want to act. Life is action. But he didn’t realize what that entailed. He didn’t know me well enough and had to rely on guesswork.

Now I have knowledge he does not share, an experience his imagination could not conjure up. Life is action.

I acknowledge the act I carried out. I do not deny it as my father and his fellow prisoners denied their misdeeds, which in any case were pathetic. If things should take a bad turn and I were to be charged and convicted, I would not proclaim my innocence, but instead admit what I had done. The act was like a tense spring coiled up inside me, waiting to be released.
Things will not take a bad turn. I acted quickly, but with forethought. I had a clear perception of the circumstances that might lead to discovery.
Johannes Harms did a great deal of harm. That play on words had long been in my thoughts and had prepared me to strike quickly when the right opportunity arose. I did not plan it, had not even considered it beforehand. This is what Söderberg, the writer, fails to understand: that a man of action is prepared, has an infallible instinct for the right moment. I struck as one strikes a rat with a broomstick the instant its nose appears from behind the garbage pail.

This was how things turned out. These words often go through my mind as I walk about town. People do their best to get ahead. They want to be successful and physically attractive, to be well dressed and have a comfortable home. When I meet them on the street, however, one person has a crooked shoulder and another is so obese he gasps for breath. The face of a once beautiful woman has turned sallow from illness; her friend pinches her lips together to hide her bad teeth. One looks garish, while the other tries to hide her poverty under a worn coat with a balding fur collar. She is a pauvre honteuse, reluctant to concede that this is how things went.
Life has its way with us. It pays no attention to our will. We are incapable of saying exactly when things went wrong, since that often occurred without us even noticing.
What we’re left with is tedium. We can depend on that.
Only when we act are we alive.

For Elsa Harms the word ‘act’ means something quite different. Now that she has come into money after her husband’s death she bustles from shop to shop. He must have put aside a tidy sum, because she denies herself nothing. For years the dark rooms of the flat have been decorated with busts and figurines in imitation classical style, carpets and tapestries of dubious Oriental provenance, lampshades with faded gold fringes, pillows with cross-stitched roses framed in silk ruffles, and candelabras of tarnished silver plate. Now change is underway. The first item she disposed of was a lamp with an alabaster base in the form of a curvaceous female with an unnaturally tiny waist. The atmosphere of Turkish harem à la Stockholm of the eighties is fading, along with the smell of Harms’ cigars.
She plans to sell the practice. I’m biding my time.