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Lena Andersson, Du är alltså svensk? En triptyk (But You Are Swedish, Aren't You? A Triptych)

Natur och Kultur,  2004. ISBN: 9127098990

Reviewed by C Claire Thomson in SBR 2005:2

Fatima is standing, looking around her in wonder. “Right here, no one asks if you have what it takes to be here. What does it take? Only that you come here”. Fatima is a Berber, an immigrant to Sweden, a baker by trade, married to Ali, and until recently unemployed. But she is not praising the Swedes’ welcoming attitude to newcomers. She is standing in the White House rose garden, in a couture suit, the Swedish Prime Minister’s Right-Hand Woman (and lover). Here, in the second ‘panel’ of Du är alltså svensk? En triptyk, we are a long way from the kitchen-sink multicultural realism of Lena Andersson’s first novel, Var det brå så? (1999). Du är alltså svensk? is an absurd, rollicking yarn whose hilarious dialogue draws on contemporary political and business jargon and philosophy-lite to satirize (mostly male) power, and yet offers insights into the human heart that are as sweet and thorny as one of the President’s roses. In fortress Europe, the question “Where are you from?” rests on two assumptions, which Du är alltså svensk? gradually exposes: that ethnic origin weighs more heavily than culture as it evolves in the course of a person’s life, and that identity (and multiculturalism) can be charted and tracked by questionnaire, tick-box and integer. In the first claustrophobic section of the novel, for example, it is explained that the office where Fatima is interviewed employs a Sikh because he equates to “two Turks... five Frenchmen... ten Americans and Brits... and fourteen Norwegians”. The question of identity is posed in various guises throughout the novel, not least in its title, and the answer is usually playful, destabilizing the determinism of a singular identity. “Why are you not an Arab?” asks the addled old King of Sweden. “I was born like that, un-Arab”, answers Fatima. “Me too. Not everyone can be an Arab”, is the King’s logical retort. In the end, it is the Prime Minister who inadvertently voices the complexity of Fatima’s identity. His planned memoirs are to be pretentiously entitled “He Struggles to Become A Subject”: that he himself is most pleased with the grammatical pun in this sentence speaks to the novel’s theme of linguistic estrangement, and to Fatima’s own mastery of Swedish syntax. But it also encapsulates the impossibility for Fatima, as for us all, of answering the question “Who are you?” without recourse to our journey through life as mishmashes of ethnic, gendered and civic identities, only really finding ourselves in our interaction with others, at work or in love. As Fatima puts it, we are “an I and a You who touch each other and become a bit more human”.

Also by Lena Andersson

  • Duck City. Reviewed by Željka Černok in SBR 2008:1.

Other reviews by C Claire Thomson

Other reviews in SBR 2005:2

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