Norstedts, 2011. ISBN: 9789113038230
Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2012:1
Outsider exhibits multiple concerns about contemporary Sweden. With the murder of Olof Palme (the then Prime Minister) in the eighties, Sweden came of age, and the safe life of the welfare state was undermined. There are now new strands in this Swedish situation. Flygt shows that the economic crisis, fraudulent banks and governments had another serious effect. Losing self-belief affects our ability to sustain rewarding human relationships.
This line of thought is sometimes disguised and sometimes expressed by the characters looking for their place in a confusing society. Flygt’s protagonist, Johan Kraft, is a graduate law student at the University of Lund. The lawyer in him made him question who he was and how he lived.
At the end of the 20th century, traditional student privilege is being eroded and success is no longer guaranteed. Johan Kraft describes the ethos of particular types of students as caricatures of an earlier tribe of students, who would both maintain and promote conservative values. But ‘even today’, students display their status in the community, if only by reacting against tradition. Caricatures, says Johan, reveal more of what’s inside than any psychological study. Also they reveal something about family backgrounds and wider social and political trends.
Johan sympathises with the left, expressing his own views and evidently those of Flygt. Sometimes one wonders if the way these views are aired does not approach polemics. However, the argument, refreshingly, does not simply progress in time-honoured fashion: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Instead we have a kaleidoscope effect briefly showing all the elements of the story in different situations and then changing again.
Johan, the Outsider, is trying to find his feet, and also a meaningful relationship. He regards himself as working-class and
despises the class system but, despite this, ends up in the establishment. His upwardly mobile ‘lower-middle-class’ mother strives to keep the family together with regular Sunday roasts. Social differences between them are cast aside and they all laugh when they find that they have two doctors and a lawyer at the head of the family. Whatever the cause, they are always loyal to the family in a crisis.
Johan, however, never laughs. He wants serious happiness that cannot be qualified, and worries about eventually becoming a member of the establishment. He cannot stay true to Helena, his upper-middle-class girlfriend, because of other allegiances he can’t quite define. Instead, he has an affair with Pernille, an attractive but unreliable, drug-addicted student who tries to commit suicide. Johan can understand neither his choice of this partner nor his shame over his behaviour to Helena. He dreams of a free life in the big city to find his true identity.
When they tentatively get together once more, Helena tells Johan that she wants a home and children. But when she gets pregnant, another crisis of identity makes the Outsider impulsively escape again to the big time in Stockholm. We learn, however, that this is not the final outcome when given a last view of Johan and Helena, married and in middle age, parents of two teenage daughters. Somewhat confusingly, given what has gone before, Johan is now hoping to see his daughters secure and happily established in a future social order that he will never live to see.
The future is technocratic and students at universities reflect this; arts are downgraded. But Johan’s problems cannot be solved by technology. He is a lawyer, but unable to judge his own performance. He condemns his girlfriends, but never himself. Humans need to give and take.An arts degree is a way of life. Johan fails his own humanity.