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Steve Sem-Sandberg, Härifrån till allmänningen (From Here to the Common)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2005. ISBN: 9100103799

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2005:2

Steve Sem-Sandberg is an instinctive journalist: not only is journalism his day-job, but as a novelist he is also fascinated by the intellectual’s responses to actuality. His last three novels are set in Central Europe and inquire into how their protagonists, all with real historical identities, interacted with history as it was happening. In a new essay on science fiction Sem-Sandberg suggests that language, not genre, is the determinant of literary excellence. After three documentary novels, he might have intended this as an oblique self-defence, especially since his latest novel arguably belongs to the same category. Not that Härifrån till allmänningen is easy to categorize. Instead of directly relating people’s actions to events, current affairs only come into intermittent, flickering focus and the historiography is contained within a narrative alive with fantasy and wry humour. Also, instead of using a few “real” people as lead characters, readers are introduced to a group of grown-ups and children, who may or may not have existed outside the writer’s imagination. True, there is an autobiographical strand in the narrative, hinted at whenever the bright schoolboy Chris Harding and his jolly parents enter the story. The time is the summer of 1969 and the place a recently built village on the outskirts of Stockholm. As it starts to grow into a bleak new town, the natives unite half-heartedly against “the incomers”, but spend most of their time chasing money and pursuing strange hobbies. The tensions in the world affect the suburban microcosm, and the children mimic the adults’ bullying. If the book’s title refers back to From Here to Eternity, then the reason is presumably this reflection of threatening but distant acts of war, respectively in the Pacific and in Vietnam, in the lives of G Company and of the neighbours round the Common. Strange stories are told about these lives, isolated and interdependent at the same time. It is all there: starting with the “garage killer”, who is the school caretaker turned avenger, the narrator looks back on beatings and doomed love, deadly gossip, ravages of alcohol and cancer, but also choral singing, excursions and neighbourhood parties. Only two silent presences remain untouched: the bleak expanse of the Common, and the alienated little boy Leonard, who wanders about looking for what no one can give him. The storylines spin around these still epicentres of this enigmatic narrative, a fascinating and engrossing break with Sem-Sandberg’s usually systematic and lucid style.

Also by Steve Sem-Sandberg

  • De utvalda (The Chosen Ones). Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2015:1.
  • De fattiga i Lodz (The Destitute of Lodz). Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2010:1.
  • Ravensbrück. Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2004:1.

Other reviews by Anna Paterson

Other reviews in SBR 2005:2

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