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Kjell Johansson, Rummet under golvet (The Room Under the Floor)

Norstedts,  2006. ISBN: 9789113016146

Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren in SBR 2007:2

Rummet under golvet (The Room Under the Floor) is the last part of Kjell Johansson’s trilogy about Sweden’s lumpenproletariat during the construction of the welfare state. It is narrated by Nils, Einar and Eva’s grandmother’s brother, whose existence they know nothing about. Their grandmother, Emma Charlotta, was once very close to her brother, but in her struggle to become a respectable working class woman she has chosen to deny that she was born and grew up in a poorhouse with a brother who would later marry a traveller woman and regularly spend time in jail.

Einar narrated the first part of the trilogy, Huset vid Flon (The House by the River), giving us a stunning tall story about the impoverished family in Stockholm just after the Second World War. His sister Eva narrated the second novel, Sjön utan namn (The Lake Without a Name), where the contemporary time plane is the 1990s, but her memories take her back to their childhood in the fifties. In Rummet under golvet (The Room Under the Floor), Nils closes the circle by taking us back one generation further, all the way to the end of the seventeenth century, where he plays in a hollow under floor of the poorhouse together with Emma Charlotta. The room under the floor symbolizes the start in life that these children get, their status in Swedish society being the lowest of the low while shut in a poorhouse with a mentally disturbed mother among the old, destitute people.

The contemporary time plane in the fifties consists of one day, the very last day in Nils’s life. He has just been released from jail again, and roams about Stockholm, reliving his memories. As in the rest of the trilogy, the memories are vital and make up most of the story in an intricate patchwork. In that single day with Nils, half a century’s life story is presented to us; a story containing darkness, pain, some happiness and a wonderful, touching love story.

In this love story, young Nils marries a traveller woman, and soon discovers that now he will never have a chance to be one of "the ordinary people". The authorities’ attitude to travellers hardens, and Nils, his wife and her family come to live a life of imprisonment for just existing, compulsory internments, compulsory sterilizations and their children taken from them. As the authorities get more intolerant, so does the public. Under the floor of the new welfare state the persecution of the Romanies turns into extermination when Big Brother Sweden tries to "correct" everyone different or odd. These people had no civil rights at all.

Johansson’s technique is to present fragments of stories incorporated in a larger frame, and then leave some of the weaving together to the reader. He does not supply us with many answers, but rather with many questions. A recurring question through the whole trilogy is: "Did this really happen?" This question is mainly used to label the most difficult and horrible memories – those which are almost unacceptable, and which can only be permitted a place in memory if they are negated. Like all memories, the stories flow in and out of each other, sometimes either changing as memories do over time, or depending on who tells them; yet, as Nils points out: "A story is always true, remember that." Nils knows that there are always many stories and many truths.

Rummet under golvet feels less dark than Sjön utan namn, for instance, much of this on account of the Nils character, who has a bright, composed mentality. His language feels authentic in Johansson’s easy-flowing, simply held prose which well suits Nils’s slightly burlesque sense of humour. Although Emma Charlotta does her fair part of the telling, it is filtered through Nils’s voice.

Through his choice of telling us about those who were, and still are, worst off in our society, and his representation of such intelligent, imaginative and hard-working characters, Johansson forces us to scrutinize our prejudices and attitudes. His trilogy is a modern proletarian story, giving us important pieces of our history and societal development.

Kristina Sjögren

Also by Kjell Johansson

  • Sjön utan namn (The Lake Without a Name). Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren in SBR 2007:2.
  • Huset vid Flon (The House beside Flon). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 1998:1.

Other reviews by Kristina Sjögren

Other reviews in SBR 2007:2

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