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Kjell Espmark, Motvilliga historier (Reluctant Narratives)

Norstedts,  2006. ISBN: 9789113016221

Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2007:2

With a writer such as Espmark, nothing can be taken for granted. Sequence, length and overall structure play sig-nificant roles in his fiction, often working in tandem with the plot. The fifteen stories (or quasi-letters) that make up this work form a chain of accounts, each one a separate narrative whose fictional author, or narrator (except for in one instance), is a psychiatric patient. The additional narrative is the doctor’s own, placed centrally and with superficially different content from the others. All the accounts highlight psychological conditions that cause serious distress and justify the referral the authors have received. While very different in terms of the symptoms they display, the patients/ narrators all suffer from a sense of unreality and loss of integral self. The boundaries of their egos are thus blurred, with the resulting anomalies involving delusions, hallucinations, compulsive-obsessive and sociopathic behaviour and schizophrenia.

The experiences of the different narrators are fascinating, and their personal narratives, requested by the psychiatrist, read like little tragi-comedies, some of them quite eerie. The psychiatrist’s own, as the eighth, comes as something of a relief but ends up leaving an impression similar to those of the rest. His narrative, he says, is really a ghost story. He seems to be writing to himself, or to his doppelganger, but the addressee turns out to be a dead woman he loved, and in fact his is as much a personal case history as all the others. He insists that his ego is intact, that he is a man without qualities (a shade of Musil’s Ulrich?), but at the same time he is subject to a kind of total transference, which goes beyond any normal patient projection and starts creating a compulsion in him such as he has extreme difficulty in resisting. The borderline between sane and near-sane is thin indeed.

At the beginning of his narrative the psychiatrist is at home, sitting at his desk, staring through his window, annoyed that his own reflection spoils the view, believing that "she" is observ-ing him the whole time from outside. At the end, he describes himself as scanning the tops of the trees in the dark in the hope of catching sight of a face: not his dead wife’s but that of the dead secretary he once loved and whose mild paranoia he feels has somehow transferred itself to him. We realize it is to her he is addressing his letter.

The titles given to the narratives are cleverly chosen, and while the pieces bear no numbers, are clearly not chapters as such and could be read as short stories, yet any reordering would distort the overall geometry of the work. The central character, the retired psychiatrist, still works one day a week and has fourteen highly literate patients, seven on each arm, as it were. There may be some doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether the fifteen narratives display sufficient differences in idiolect to provide convincing evidence of individual authorship (and would an autobiographer reproduce his/her own stuttering?). But keeping one guessing is all part of Espmark’s complex game.

The opening narrative begins significantly with the question: "Why me?" Central to the book, appearing in the psychiatrist’s own contribution, is the existential question: "Who am I?" The closing words of the final narrator, at the end of the longest piece of all, revealing both insight and ignorance, are written with bitterness and irony: "But do you know what distresses me most? It’s that you’ll have forgotten everything I’ve told you by the time you hang up your white coat this afternoon, to set off in the direction you call ‘homewards’." Yes, identity and home are inextricably entwined, a poignant fact of life that Espmark convincingly illustrates, with both pathos and humour, in this skilfully woven web of reluctant narratives.

Martin Murrell

Also by Kjell Espmark

  • Resan till Thule (Journey to Thule). Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2018:1.
  • Béla Bartók mot Tredje Riket (Béla Bartók vs. the Third Reich). Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2005:2.
  • Voltaire's resa (Voltaire's Journey). Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2003:2.
  • Glädjen (Happiness). Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 1997:2.
  • Revanschen (Revenge). Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 1996:2.
  • Hatet (Hatred). Reviewed by Karin Petherick in SBR 1995:2.

Other reviews by Martin Murrell

Other reviews in SBR 2007:2

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