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Kerstin Ekman and Swedish Crime

Anna Paterson

This article appeared in the 2010:1 issue.

Anna Paterson, Kerstin Ekman and Swedish CrimeBringing the Criminal to Justice

Murder is the crime of first choice for plotlines that revolve around law breaking and violence. Lethal bodily harm never fails to arouse the bystanders’ vengeful anger, not only among those immediately affected, but also in society at large. ‘Justice!’ we cry and know what we mean – or think we do. Readers of murder stories root for the investigators, as they go about the business of protecting the innocent and nailing the guilty.
At least, this was taken for granted in the classical crime fiction that W. H. Auden analyses so elegantly in The Guilty Vicarage (an essay included in the collection The Dyer’s Hand, 1963). In an aside, he also speaks about another kind of literary fiction: ‘works of art which deal with murder’. This idea forms part of newer definitions of crime fiction, which include Kafka and Dostoyevsky, Thomas Pynchon and Umberto Eco as well as brilliant ‘classicists’ like Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith. These are authors who ask difficult questions concerning the uncertainty inherent in ‘evidence’, the ambiguities of motivation and the uneasy balance between legality and justice.
‘To a rational being there can be but one rule of conduct, justice, and one mode of ascertaining that rule, the exercise of his understanding’, writes William Godwin in his An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). On the basis of this declaration, one might have expected that Godwin’s crime novel Caleb Williams (1794) would be a typical whodunnit with the Law as the ultimate and just enforcer of righteousness. Not so; this gripping, eccentric picaresque – arguably one of the earliest works of crime fiction – is more modern, or indeed post-modern, than that. Instead, it has been described as a forerunner of ‘the continuing tendency in crime fiction to link psychological exploration with political radicalism’ (Andrew McGann in The Literary Encycolpedia, 2001).
That judgement encapsulates important ways in which Kerstin Ekman construes crime, its origins and consequences. The contributors to this issue have selected passages with crime motifs from her novels for comment and translation. The excerpts illustrate the subtlety and wit of the author, her capacity for acute observation and her psychological insight. All the chosen books send urgent messages about the manifestations and dangers of social injustice, rather than invitations to solve life-and-death riddles.

Crimes of Commission

Ekman’s first three novels were playful but conventional variations on the classical detection theme. However, in the next four books, there are many signs of departure from the riddle-solving, retributive approach. Under the Snow, the only one of her first seven crime stories as yet translated into English, is a study of an isolated rural community in the far north of Sweden, its people held captive by landscape and circumstance. A precise knowledge of place confers originality on an otherwise straightforward story about a murder intended to cover up an inconvenient fatherhood. The engagement with the technical aspects of the plot, which includes the game of Mah-jong, is a constant in Ekman’s writing.
From among these seven, Death Knell is perhaps the most indicative of things to come. In it, a forest community is fascinatingly evoked and punctiliously described. A hunting team of half-a-dozen men are preparing for the annual elk season. One night, too drunk for safety, they drive off together in a bus and manage to kill an unknown woman in a traffic accident. They agree to cover up the incident, but the comradely atmosphere begins to go sour. Their pretence is doomed to fail, especially since they forget to remove significant clues; the plotting is focused on the tensions within the group. Only minimal police work is required to identify the culprits and they duly serve their prison sentences for reckless driving and perverting the course of justice. However, when an old hunter deliberately kills off a man he has hated for a long time and who has blackmailed the whole team, the law is kept out of it. Instead, the murderer’s best friend metes out an unofficial form of justice: at a crucial moment, he prevents the older man from shooting the great elk bull he has always longed to have in his sights.
Memories which haunt you and change the way you live; social circumstances which condition moral ambivalence; distaste for modern bureaucracies; rural isolation which allows people to evade officialdom and follow their own codes; the wilderness as a powerful presence – all are themes that recur in Ekman’s later writing.
In the early 1970s, Kerstin Ekman chose to move away from the kind of straight storytelling that solely reflects rational chains of cause and effect. She explores the functions of myth, imagination and memory; reality is observed through shifting states of mind, though always grounded by precisely described practical details. Crimes are still part of the stories, as of life, but instead of being crimes of commission, they are often either obscure acts that generate ripples of unforeseen consequences or, in the context of social injustice, ‘crimes against humanity’.
However, there is one book in particular which connects with her past as crime writer: Blackwater, a bestseller at home and abroad. We are back in the far north: the once quiet backyard of the Swedish industrial state is being opened up through road building, clear-felling, mining and the like. Meanwhile, lost urbanites migrate to it in search of wild nature. These new streams of traffic interfere with older ways of life, both among the Swedish and the Sami natives. The local build-up of fear and anger culminates in an axe murder of two tourists, peacefully asleep in a tent. When the book begins, the crime is unsolved but not forgotten, although it happened eighteen years earlier. In such a closed community, events have consequences that reverberate through time. There is another killing and, in the end, two separate murderers are identified. Their punishment is grief and isolation; more we are not told. Did people cry out for justice? Yes and no: ‘There’s relief to be had for people who hate. In this incredibly messy existence. Insane stuff keeps happening. Sometimes laughter brings relief. Yes... well, Christ! One way or another, you’ve got to get out from under.’

Crimes of Omission

The publication of Devil’s Horn (Pukehornet, 1967, subtitled ‘On the Art of Dying in the Right Place’) interrupts the flow of more or less orthodox crime fiction. It is a trompe d’oeil of a novel, consisting of two intertwining, partly contradictory stories. Sarah Death has introduced and translated an extract from Devil’s Horn, a novel analysed by Rochelle Wright in a thoughtful article in a previous issue of this jounal: ‘Crime Fiction and the "Crime" of Fiction', SBR 1984:2, pp. 13-16.
An accidental death – a fat old woman has a stroke during a walk in the forest – becomes a crime, because Pär, the woman’s younger, stronger male companion on the walk, decides not to tell. As in Death Knell, omitting to tell the truth is enough to create a crime of sorts. In order not to be found out, Pär slides deeper into deception and his initial fabrications breed more lies, which spread like viruses. In the second, parallel story, the narrative is taken over by one of Pär’s neighbours, a woman writer. At a fairly early stage, we are made to take on board the possibility that the account of the fat woman’s demise in the forest might be a writer’s invention to satisfy our need for stories. We never learn what ‘really’ happened.
In correspondence with Rochelle Wright, Ekman writes about the elusive narrative and equally elusive moral of Devil’s Horn. She says that ‘narration is necessary’ as a survival strategy, and also: ‘There is no objective reality, no possibility of ‘pure’ reportage or documentation. I’m trying to cast doubt on the narrative and simultaneously demonstrate its necessity.’ Later, she comments that the novel is about ‘how you fabricate a false reality when real life falls apart.’
Kerstin Ekman’s career as a major literary figure takes off from the 1974 publication of her first novel of the four known under the overall title The Women and the Town. At one level, the novels coalesce into a grim account of quick and dirty industrialisation; social injustice spooks every volume. The author is passionate about the grim conditions of the losers in the capitalist game and, especially, the plight of the women. But in this and other novels from the 1970s and 80s, the dominating argument is about the fallibility as well as the power of memory, as part of a fascinated search for a lost Swedish past.
Then, in the early 1990s, Ekman returns to crime fiction with Blackwater. A few years later, she is following a new path in the novel Revive Me (1996; Gör mig levande igen).

Crimes against Humanity

Although the idea is much older, the definition in international law of crime against humanity came into force recently; it states, among other things ‘[such crimes] are odious offences in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings’ (The [Rome] Statute of the International Criminal Court, 2002). As a concept, crimes against humanity are ever present in Revive Me, an extraordinary book about the past and the awkwardly different present, and about the interdependence of myth, storytelling and life as it is lived. As in so many of Ekman’s novels, a crime infects the body of the story, but we are never quite sure what happened – let alone why.
By chance, a few confused people find the body of an eighteen-year-old black girl, Rosemarie, inside a locked freezer in an abandoned villa. As Rochelle Wright explains in the introduction to her two translated excerpts from Revive Me, the girl went missing early in the book. Instead of turning up for her job in a corner shop, she had wandered off, dressed for a Lucia Day party. A chain of silver angels is still in her frosted hair. Her mother and sister had attempted to find her, but failed – predictably; they are poor, isolated and under threat from local skinheads. Did Rosemarie die in a nasty racist-cum-nationalist ritual, as a sacrifice to the gods of Valhalla? The back-story makes this seem likely. Can the dead girl’s family expect to be treated justly and to see justice done? Given the context, either is highly unlikely.
Crimes against humanity affect this witty but deeply serious novel in other ways. It has been said of it that ‘the boundaries between good and evil become blurred’ and that ‘evil creeps ever closer, taking on different shapes’ ('Worlds in Collision. A Study of Kerstin Ekman's Novel Revive Me' by Cecilia Lindhé. English abstract. In Samlaren, vol. 122, pp. 74-94. 2001). And bad things do keep happening, to individuals and to society. A Jewish teacher hangs herself after having failed to make her class
understand what her own childhood in Auschwitz and other hellholes meant ‘in reality’. A young woman is badly beaten up by a rival. The Balkan War of the 1990s rumbles on in the background, with its ethnic and religious hatreds, and its violence against civilians. As the older generation recalls World War II, echoes of defeated leftwing idealism enter the narrative. Near the end, there is talk of the task of literature to ‘protect, support and further humanist values, whenever they are under threat. In bad times, its duty is to guard democracy.’ How old-fashioned is that?
By 2003, Kerstin Ekman had completed a sequence of three novels with the overall title The Wolfskin. The main setting is the countryside around Blackwater, where it used to be a harsh necessity to kill wolves and a wolf-hide was a fine gift from a man to a woman. As we follow the fates of an interrelated group of people from the early twentieth century to the near present, the iconic hide gradually decays into a faded, moth-eaten relic. One of Linda Schenck’s two extracts from the last volume shows how old practices have become crimes, as the wilderness is ordered and made subject to laws of a kind that particularly its older inhabitants find hard to grasp. In the second extract, the narrative revisits yet again the crime that has haunted it for almost a century – a crime which is one of the core elements in the trilogy.
Once more, we never learn fully what happened, although fragments of partly true, partly false – misremembered? – events emerge with time. A little girl is born healthy against the odds: her mother is a worn-out, cowed child of thirteen, her father unknown – maybe he is the hard-faced ‘uncle’, maybe the son of the house, a scared teenager called Elis. The newborn infant is killed, frozen to death, but the only responsible witness, the midwife, enters a lie in the official record: ‘natural perinatal death’. She has seen poverty and it almost paralyses her: ‘it had never appeared to her as so dark, crouched and watchful, so sly.’
Elis escapes from his personal poverty trap, runs away to foreign places and becomes an artist. Although the infanticide remains uninvestigated and practically unknown, the act permeates the narrative, like yeast in a dough. Halfway through the second volume, the midwife’s diary reveals details of a terrible, long drawn-out confrontation with Elis, who has temporarily returned and started an affair with her daughter. He escapes once more, this time from an unborn baby. But this girl child, who is called Ingefrid, survives and, when the third volume begins, has become a doubt-ridden vicar in the state church. She locates her father, they talk inconclusively, but later Elis finds himself accepting at least a partial responsibility for a lost child: Ingefrid’s adopted Indian boy, talented and disturbed.
As time passes, the misdeed takes on different forms. The dead baby is manifest in Elis’s art: when his glassware is given a prestigious retrospective exhibition, the critics become uneasy. One range of objects consists of ‘grotesque, lifeless imitations of the creation of life’ and ‘portrayals of human deformity’. One critic wonders: ‘Is it brain substance or snow that erupts from the head of that child?’
Apparently irreducibly, crimes against humanity continue: the class-driven poverty, the cruel mistreatment of women. The second volume is overshadowed by the persecution of the Jews and the slaughter, suffering and treachery of war. In last decades of the century, it is the Third World that emits the sour reek of poverty, while wealth is being extracted from the destruction of wild nature and native peoples. Politics can be subverted and so can religion and medicine.
‘Crimes against nature’ deserve a separate mention, because Kerstin Ekman has written with well-informed passion about the trails of degradation left in the landscape through greed and ignorance. Most recently (at least in book form), Masters of the Forest is an exceptionally rich compendium of lore, thought, investigations into and love affairs with the Swedish forests (Herrarna i skogen, 2007). She laments the vanishing real forests, once powerful engines of growth, death and re-growth, but cannot envisage an end to the processes which have caused them to be replaced with managed plantations, crisscrossed by road traffic and sports enthusiasts. The book and its background in Ekman’s writing have been discussed (with sample translations) in a recent article of mine in World Literature Today ('Landscapes Remembered: Kerstin Ekman and Nature' by Anna Paterson. WLT, 42:1, 2008.)

The Practice of Murder

This is the title of Kerstin Ekman’s most recent novel (Mordets praktik, 2009), reviewed in this issue by Rochelle Wright. Also, an excerpt from the book has been the subject of a joint translation exercise, coordinated by Rochelle Wright. Already something of a bestseller in Sweden, it is the story of a doctor who, driven by his egotistical longing for recognition, kills to rid himself of an odious senior colleague and at the same time protect an adorable girl from the old man’s disturbing attentions.
However, as Rochelle Wright’s review shows, this novel is far too rich in inter-textual references, and far too complex in intention, ever to be read as just a play with the building blocks of traditional crime fiction.

Literature and Society

During a seminar at the Gothenburg Book Fair 2009, Kerstin Ekman discussed The Practice of Murder, saying at one point: ‘A good text is always ”suspense fiction”, whether or not it is a thriller. And a crime is always a good “hub” around which to build up a novel’ (translation by Linda Schenck). Just so; but the implication is neither that suspense depends directly on a crime being part of a story, nor that the ‘hub’ must be a clear-cut breach of the law of the land. In the many books published after 1970, the only classic police raid I can recall is two hapless officers on snowmobiles chasing after a man suspected of having shot a wolf (in third volume of The Wolfskin). Among all the characters in her novels, it is hard to find a villain in the archetypal sense, and when acts of wrongdoing or evil occur, they are often half-hearted and ill understood, and only partially cleared up – if at all.
On the other hand, the characters in Ekman’s novels are always shown in well-defined social contexts, often expressing the author’s acute awareness of injustice. In ‘real life’, social conscience dictated her famous decision to withdraw from the Swedish Academy (it is technically impossible to resign) in protest against the Academy’s equivocal response to the fatwa directed against Salman Rushdie. She consistently stands up for freedom of expression – as, for instance, when Roberto Saviano revealed that, in 2008, the Mafia had declared him a marked man. But Ekman has written polemically on many other issues, generally keeps a sharp eye on the power-brokers and believes that literature can enlighten them: ‘all politicians [...] would do well to try to enter a world that cannot be analysed according to their set models of society’. (‘Kerstin Ekman’s reading hints’ [Kerstin Ekmans boktips]. In Aftonbladet 30 August 2009.)