Norstedts, 2006. ISBN: 9789113016122
Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2007:1
English Translation: The Unit, translated by Marlaine Delargy. Other Press, 2009. ISBN 9781590513132.
Ninni Holmqvist’s latest work of fiction is set in the future, in Sweden, in a society where politics are driven by the forces of economic rationalism, and ethical considerations no longer play a role in its institutions. As a piece of science fiction depicting a state with power of life and death over some of its members, and a social system founded on the primacy of economic develop-ment and human fertility rates over morality and human dignity, it may succeed in shocking even readers already familiar with portrayals of such dystopias.
Holmqvist’s novel describes the experiences of a fifty-year-old woman, Dorrit Weger, who, having no dependants or useful occupation, has reached the age when she is forced to sacrifice her life and freedom for the benefit of other individuals who are considered socially and economically more important. In this society, compulsory organ and tissue donation and eventual euthanasia have been legally authorized on the basis of a national referendum. This horrifying piece of legislation gives the stamp of legitimacy to an extreme form of social engineering and indoctrination. The author is profoundly questioning the conscience of such a society.
This fine novel is carefully constructed to provide gradually increasing suspense, with a plausible storyline within the given setting that culminates in a number of surprises. Although deeply pessimistic, the novel is shot through with the possibility of love and the pleasures of human bonding within such externally imposed structures, even when these inevitably have destructive outcomes. Dorrit becomes pregnant by her co-inmate lover, Johannes – but too late to affect their fate.
The reader may well react with disbelief to the referendum and its consequences. Yet, with the right amount of brainwashing and the promotion of cynicism, inertia and greed, perhaps there is only a short step to a community viewing some of its members as "dispensable" (umbärliga), that is, unable or unwilling to contribute to society’s maintenance or growth. Such citizens, as a kind of retributive punishment, are coerced into self-sacrifice in order to enable society’s taxpayers and parents to fulfil their roles more effectively. The official criteria for dispensability are clear, without gradations. People inevitably go to great lengths to ensure they do not fall into this category, hence a diminishing number of "dispensables" are confined to "the Unit" where their body parts are eventually removed, transplanted or stored.
"The Unit" is a facility that provides its inmates (at no charge) with luxury suites and every kind of diversion as well as the services of doctors, counsellors, psychologists and the like. The inmates are free to explore and develop new occupations. However, while plenty of television channels are available, there are no real windows to the outside world or ways of commun-icating with it. And everywhere, even in the bathroom, the ever-watchful eyes of CCTV cameras record every movement and utterance. Continuous surveillance is essential: after all, Big Brother doesn’t want any harm to come to his protégés. The staff in the Unit are superficially kind, sympathetic and patient, and even break the rules to help Dorrit when she becomes pregnant. However, they have been brainwashed into believing their jobs are socially important.
Dorrit does develop friendships in the Unit, but these inevitably end. She accepts her fate and is unable to flee even when offered the chance. She finally takes a step outside her customary role by making a decision that will give her unborn child a better future than she could provide for herself. Finally alone and no longer needed, she writes a last letter to her daughter.
The voluntary donation of human organs is a long established practice in many societies, as is its illegal counter-part – the kind of trade described in Staffan Bruun’s novel Kinesisk rulett (Chinese Roulette; 2002) and Stephen Frears’ film Dirty Pretty Things (2002). In Enhet the trade has been nationalized, and life itself is seen as a capital resource used to "benefit reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy". Dorrit believes she must accept this, as otherwise her death would be meaningless: "I live and die so that the gross national product can increase, and if I did not see this as meaningful, life would be unbearable" (p.106).
It is a bleak picture, but these are bleak times and writers and artists often serve to warn us through their visions and portrayals – as Ninni Holmqvist does with this novel. However, not all the dangers are destined to come from external sources; some may already be growing from within.