Albert Bonniers förlag, 2005. ISBN: 9100107980
Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2006:1
“On offer here is the shameful ingredient that once made great literature read: entertainment”, says Horace Engdahl, the Permanent Secretary of The Swedish Academy, about Östergren’s fiction in a quote on the dust jacket. Initially one wonders about the English plural form, Gangsters, as the title of Östergren’s most recent novel, a book in Swedish written by a native Swede. Would the correct “gangstrar” have been less enticing? Of course, in this story Östergren makes a point of having spotted his previous, highly praised Swedish novel, Gentlemen (1980), in a book shop window in Stockholm. Neither of the two English plurals is officially accepted in the Swedish language. Perhaps Gangsters is a love story – “a love promising everything, tested in nothing” the author reflects at the end of the book. The backdrop is illegal, international arms trade, tumultuous, threatening, violent, and confusing mafia methods. The setting is Sweden and Vienna from the 1970s to the present. A writer’s (the omnipresent I) work on his book, struggling to determine whether the product should be an entertaining novel or a written indictment of Sweden’s involvement “in something shameful in our past, a historical tangle with ramifications in our time,” runs all through the story. Östergren allows his imagination free rein and he has a personal style that sometimes puts the reader’s legitimate curiosity on the back burner: “there is reason to return to this later”. Initially tantalizing hints and speculations lose their fascination and shrivel up when the author applies his postponing technique, and there are moments when one wonders where the story is going. However, the passionate and convincing expression of insight into adolescent psychology and a gripping use of language in the vein of Edgar Alan Poe to express a horrific encounter in a flat in suburban Stockholm no doubt deserve positive recognition. So does Östergren’s running commentary on real events and sentiments in the world from the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme in 1986 to the nuclear plant catastrophe in Tjernobyl to the writer’s translations of modern English drama: “The plays were an expression of a new climate in society, harsher, more ruthless. England had taken the lead but Sweden wasn’t far behind.” “Only thriving plants remain in the garden”, says the writer philosophically at one point in the novel. What is actually thriving in Klas Östergren’s Gangsters? Perhaps it is entertainment after all, in a glib sort of way. By the way, the “Fleur du Mal”, intriguingly decorating the dust jacket and four times referred to in the story itself, is a token of concord or surrender, depending on taste!