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Per Wirtén, The Crazy Swede: en sann historia (The Crazy Swede: A True Story)

Norstedts,  2007. ISBN: 9789113016894

Reviewed by Charles Harrison-Wallace in SBR 2009:2

‘The Crazy Swede’ was a title bestowed by the news media on Anders Svedlund, 1926-1979, a naturalised New Zealander of Swedish birth, who entered the record books by becoming the first man to row alone across the Indian Ocean. His glass fibre rowing boat was 21 feet long, and the distance he covered was about 3,550 nautical miles. He left Western Australia on April 29th 1971, and arrived in Madagascar 64 days later, on May 23rd. The next successful crossing by a solo oarsman was not for another 32 years, when Briton Simon Chalk made a similar journey in 2003, lasting 107 days.

Svedlund, a solitary, driven man, died from a freak accident in his house in New Zealand. Although married for a seven-year period and the father of two daughters, he had spent the last 30 years of his life almost constantly on the move, after leaving Sweden with his bicycle at the age of 23 in 1950. The life cries out for a linear biography, chronicling his wanderings, and offering some analysis of what compelled him to embark on his reckless undertakings. Per Wirtén’s credentials for this task seem appropriate. When Anders and his younger brother Bror-Erik were orphaned by the sudden deaths of their parents and their small sister in 1936, they were taken care of by Wirtén’s unmarried great-aunt Tyra. Wirtén has had unique access to Svedlund’s unpublished and unfinished manuscript, and letters home from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Madagascar, and many other places. He is also the editor-in-chief of Arena, and a regular correspondent in Expressen and Sydsvenskan, writing on cultural topics.

Unfortunately, for an ordinary, old-fashioned reader, he has adopted what can only be called an impressionistic approach in his 200-page account of his subject’s eccentric doings. Excerpts from Svedlund’s autobiographical manuscript are interspersed with Wirtén’s own musings and ruminations on the alienation of the individual from what is sometimes called the social box. Time and again, his narrative departs from Svedlund’s true story, and roams far afield, touching on the writings of Thomas More, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau, as well as frequently on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Other familiar and less familiar names that crop up include Diderot, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Byron, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Marcel Mauss, Johan Kaspar Lavater, Are Waerland, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Philibert Commerson, Joseph-Marie Degerando, Susan Greenfield, Steven Pinker, Francis Crick, Norbert Gleicher, Arlene Judith Klotzko, Michel Houellebecq, and Alain Touraine. Even Dolly the cloned sheep, and the ancient Norse wisdom poem Hávamál get a mention. Only the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which relates how Gilgamesh sailed over the ocean in search of the island flower of immortality, is missing from the variegated catalogue of literary and social exiles, and their interpreters.

Parallels are drawn with other maritime adventurers, some of whose paths crossed with Svedlund, such as Thor Heyerdahl and his wife, Bengt Danielsson and his wife, Sverre Holmsen and his wife, Alf Kinnander, Maud Fontenoy, and Peter Bird. Half a dozen pages are devoted to Svedlund’s foster-mother, Wirtén’s pious, Bible-reading great-aunt Tyra. It is argued that she led an isolated, inner-directed existence, which impacted on her charge, and that in spite of their widely differing lives they shared the same sense of self-determination.

What disconcerts about Wirtén’s erratic reflections is that the bytes of information leap about in a dizzying, uncoordinated succession. We hear little about great-aunt Tyra in any detail until page 80. There we are told that her clock ticked in the front room, where the floorboards had been scrubbed. Anders, back home in 1973 from his record-breaking ocean crossing, asks his foster-mother what he ought to do. She tells him to put his trust in God. The reader wonders if this actually happened, or if it is an exchange conjured up by the author’s imagination, and the answer is not provided.

Although there are flashes of interest and insight as Wirtén skims over his chosen ground, the net result is a hybrid, almost incoherent performance. The book is not an easy read, and one is left wishing that the subject matter, with its attendant theories, had been better organised, grasped with a surer hand and pursued in greater depth.

Other reviews by Charles Harrison-Wallace

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