Finistère, 2005. ISBN: 919753501X
Reviewed by Anne Stauss in SBR 2006:1
In her most recent book, Bodil Malmsten sets the stage in Sweden. In stark and total contrast to the fulfilled and life-embracing characters we met in her 2001 novel, The Price of Water in Finistère, we are now confronted with five plaintive, indignant and unhappy souls; five contemporary Swedes from various walks of life, imparting to us their glum observations on life and their tales of disillusionment and personal distress. First there is Bert-Ove, middle-class, middleaged, alone, unemployed and on permanent sick leave. What is ailing him is not entirely clear, neither to the reader nor, perhaps, to Bert-Ove himself – possibly depression, possibly something more palpable. Be that as it may, the welfare state takes care of him. He is not in want of anything material. He receives his monthly payments in the form of mute and indifferent numbers on a bank account. Consequently, he feels disconnected from the world, lamenting the loss of human interaction. He is intimidated by modern methods, and recalls with nostalgia his childhood’s simpler way of life. Simultaneously, he acknowledges that people in Sweden are better off today – in spite of feeling worse. “They’re better off, but they feel worse. Isn’t that just so Swedish? To be the bloody best at feeling the worst!” All attempts to call the benefits bureau lead to an answering machine asking the caller to “press star to leave a message”. Then we have Giselle, the socialite, the divorcee, conscious of her upper-class origins and exasperated with the incompetent care the authorities give to her talented but mentally unstable twin sister. Giselle, too, is greeted by an answering machine whenever she tries to telephone the doctor or the hospital. On the few occasions that she does manage to get through, she is outraged at what she perceives as an insufferable smugness of contemporary society, and she feels slighted by those in charge. Edvard is the brilliant scientist, mathematician – and would-be suicide. He has no need to communicate with those around him; on the contrary, he much prefers the beauty and the silence of numbers. But he, too, has his cross to bear: under the spell of a friend from a family of academics, Edvard, in his youth, came to be ashamed of his proletarian background and utterly resentful of his phlegmatic and unrefined parents, whose very existence he eventually renounced. “They took offence, he would say about his kin, long before it became compulsory for Swedes to take offence.” Jessica is the adolescent, and, as befits her kind, outwardly at odds with all and everything. Although basically good-natured – her heart goes out to the destitute and homeless – she is torn between convention and a desire to rebel against what is expected of her. Nonetheless, Jessica still has her principles and stands up for her beliefs, despising those who blame anybody but themselves for their circumstances. After all this negativism, the tale of old Thomasine comes as an unexpected relief. Thomasine appears to be the exception. Thomasine is strong, having steeled herself against anything that might break her down. She is proud and independent, even when disaster strikes and she is forced to leave her beloved ancestral home. And should she, notwithstanding, succumb to unwanted emotions, she ascertains that no one but herself will be burdened by them. Issues such as homelessness, poverty, immigrants and class are briefly tackled in the narratives. Through her characters, Malmsten clearly takes a swipe at the Swedish welfare state – at any welfare state? – that ultimately reduces some of its citizens to a group of whingeing losers. It would, of course, be wrong to imagine that these five are representative of an entire nation – just as it is hard to feel much sympathy for them in a world racked by calamities, natural or man-made. All five of them return to us briefly at the end of the book. They each have an anecdote to tell, an account of something significant from their past. Now, their narratives are focused, fluid, coherent, concise – a joy to read. Their voices are a testimony to a most talented and versatile writer.