Norstedts, 2009. ISBN: 9789113021027
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2009:2
It is not so very often that one can point to a recently published novel and say that it shows real literary ambition. Lars Sund’s latest book, En lycklig liten ö, will provide book circles everywhere with endless hours of fun and games, and they will be amply rewarded, for this is the work of an unusually gifted novelist writing with confidence, playfulness and subtlety.
The novel opens with a preamble which, in many ways, indicates what the reader can expect. In it, the omnipresent narrator clarifies the fact that the island, Fagerö, is an invented world. The writer-narrator is playing God here and creating a world:
In the beginning the computer screen was empty and void and the writer’s fingers rested on the keyboard... For a long time the writer hesitated and brooded, before finally he wrote the first word: ‘sky’. After thinking for a long time, he wrote the next word, which was ‘sea’...
The idea of the island, as used by Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe and many others, has always been an emblematic device. Surrounded by sea on all sides, it represents a self-contained world – the planet, society, the individual, or any other defined subject under scrutiny. Sund’s island has a clear social aspect to it, for Fagerö is a backward-looking portrait of Swedish archipelago life, inspired by stock literary sources such as Strindberg’s Hemsöborna or the West Coast tales of Emilie Flygare-Carlén. Anyone who knows Sweden also knows that the islands of the Kattegat and Baltic seas, once the preserve of pipe-smoking old fishermen on the jetties and diesel-smelling wooden trawlers, are now the stamping ground of advertising executives, lawyers and oil millionaires, whose huge plastic motor-yachts bob contentedly in the depleted fishing harbours. Admittedly Sund does acknowledge in his novel that Fagerö has its holiday-makers and, much as in real life, these are disdained and not held in high esteem by the locals. But all in all, the writer has created an anachronistic and artificial world here, for good reason as we shall see.
Lars Sund populates this world with a gallery of local characters whose lives, like a house of cards toppling in slow-motion, gradually and deliciously slide into fantasy. Describing them all would be a lengthy task; there is a real profusion in Sund’s imagination. His characters move through dense personal histories, and are occasionally brought into the unfolding plot (although ‘plot’ is a big word to use for his centrifuge of stories) with a control and fecundity that recalls the great exponents of South American magical realism.
We have, for instance, Post-Janne, Fagerö’s postman and son of the previous postmaster, who steams open any interesting-looking envelopes and hence knows everything worth knowing about island affairs. Because of an almost phobic tendency to seasickness, Post-Janne has never left the tiny, hermetically sealed world of Fagerö. Thus he becomes a potent representative of its insularity. Another important figure is Kangarn, the enigmatic owner of the ‘Amerikan Bar’ as well as the abandoned mine – including its generators, which supply Fagerö’s electrical grid. The local police constable, Riggert von Haartman, is a forlorn figure who ever since the untimely death of his wife has lived on his own, continuing a daily conversation with her as if she never died. Kangarn and von Haartman are both immigrants to Fagerö and this proves important later, as we shall see. The strong-man of Fagerö and head of the parish council is K.D Mattson, whose lopsided and obsessive concern for local affairs and his own respectability read very much like a backward glance into the works of classic nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Swedish novels, such as Hjalmar Bergman’s Markurells i Wadköping. Mattson’s wife, Saga, is another small-minded dignitary. Crucially, we have Judit, the independent-minded owner of a small farm on nearby Aspskär Island (thus another outsider) where she lives with her protégée, a young, frightened girl who rarely speaks – yet whose sensitivity provides another important turning-point in the novel. Then there is Cecilia, the island’s madwoman – here Sund plays with a folkloric element (also an integral part of what is often considered as ‘Swedishness’). Cecilia’s wedding was marred many years earlier by the appearance of the Devil, recognised by his feet covered in hair like the fetlocks of a horse. The father of the bride cleverly inebriates the diabolical visitant with schnapps, then fills his pockets with stone and throws him in the sea. But Cecilia’s life is blighted. After a few years on the mainland she leaves her husband and returns to Fagerö with her young son, who later runs away to sea and is drowned. Cecilia is often seen walking the island, looking for her son, whose death she refuses to accept.
So what is this book actually about? In a nutshell, cosy, old-world Fagerö is full of consternation when a dead, unknown body floats ashore. A funeral is held for the unknown victim of the sea. Before long, dead people start floating in on a regular basis, and consternation turns to panic. In spite of Constable von Haartman’s best efforts, none of the bodies can be identified. A refrigerated container is placed in the harbour as a temporary morgue. Later, the bodies are disposed of in a mass grave.
The impact of this invasion of strangers is where Sund begins to unfold his social and cultural theme. At the risk of sounding too prescriptive, the dead strangers floating seem to operate as a metaphor for the flood of refugees and immigrants pressing against European borders. The fact that the invaders are dead is also a device of Sund’s, pointing to their sheer impotence in society.
Some of Fagerö’s residents – including some of the dreaded summer visitors – organise a petition to have the mass grave exhumed and the bodies sent back to the mainland. The fear, in this case, is that there will not be enough room in the churchyard for the people of Fagerö. Even Fagerö’s pastor fails to show any real solidarity. On the same note, a group of moped-riding, right-wing thugs are angered when the ‘Aryan’ Midsummer celebrations, usually held on the quay, are cancelled, ostensibly because of the presence of the container with all the corpses inside, although the real reason is the sheer gloom and desperation that has settled over Fagerö. Outraged, the thugs look for a scapegoat, and a potentially ugly scene takes place in which Kangarn, the ‘insider-outsider’ is threatened on account of his dark skin.
The social theme is further developed in the figure of Ghita Saarinen, a reporter from the mainland who pursues the story of the dead people in the sea, even though the local media has decided to tone down its coverage – as a result of political pressure. Her findings, which she discusses with von Haartman, suggest they have all been executed by a power far greater than anything on Fagerö.
But, as Sund demonstrates, Fagerö must also bear some of the blame. After all, its lacklustre, fearful and inward-looking population is an accurate representation of humanity, which so often stands by naively and without a vestige of civic courage when officially sanctioned crimes take place. Only outsiders such as Judit and her girl (whose reaction to finding a dead baby floating in the water is a defining moment in the narrative), Kangarn, von Haartman and Ghita Saarinen emerge as individuals capable of expressing some sort of active morality.
Fagerö’s homeliness, quaintness and smug self-regard is a paper-thin lie punctured very elegantly by Lars Sund in this exuberant novel, painted in a literary language bursting with fruity, evocative style – the larder is filled to bursting and redolent of rich scents: winter apples, salted sausage, pickled herring, soured cream and cranberry jam. Above all, Swedishness, or perhaps Finland-Swedishness, is shown in its most sentimental form, ultimately as a subtle warning to those who crow about the joys of yesterday.