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P.C. Jersild, Edens bakgård (The Back Yard of Eden)

Fri Tanke förlag,  2009. ISBN: 9789186061029

Reviewed by Peter Hogg in SBR 2010:1

The Swedish novelist P. C. Jersild (born 1935) has divided his life between the medical profession and literary work, publishing dozens of novels since his debut in 1960 and gaining a reputation as an incisive critic of bureaucracy as a form of social pathology. His latest novel is a first-person account by a middle-aged drifter in Stockholm, Roland Rajamäki, who, having descended through alcoholism into homelessness, has been left with deep-seated feelings of fear and a terrible guilty secret. That aspect of the story provides glimpses of a tiny and under-reported section of Swedish society, the down-and-outs known ironically as ‘A-teams’ that are to be found near the social welfare offices in almost every communal centre. Roland, however, is mysteriously rescued by being approached by a stranger and employed as a watchman and general factotum in a small office in the former Klara district. The entire narrative reflects Roland’s personal outlook, simply describing (without criticising) the weird, rat-infested underbelly of central Stockholm – literally, as it extends through various underground levels, including former nuclear bomb-shelters, down to the sewers – and the equally strange firm that employs him. Yet Jersild’s language is so wonderfully lucid and concrete that everything that happens seems ‘normal’, a story-telling gift of creating a believably ominous atmosphere that is reminiscent of that of José Saramago. The firm purveys electronic experiences of ‘virtual reality’ – increasingly chaotic and dreamlike and gradually slipping towards sado-masochism – in a shop called the Holo-Drome. At the same time it acts as a ‘head-hunting’ firm and provider of mailing lists based on customer files and others abstracted from the military records of the discontinued national-service system. (One of Roland’s advantages to the firm is that he has, through a bureaucratic error, lost his personal ID number, so he cannot be officially employed but is given night-time accommodation in the office and pocket money.) By adopting Roland as his mouthpiece, Jersild is able to record, without comment, the meaningless ‘management-speak’ and psycho-babble about ‘personal identity’ and ‘image’ that currently prevails in all advanced societies. He may likewise be placing the narrator in a certain socio-linguistic stratum by letting him frequently use more colloquial verbal constructions. When the ex-Maoist owner of the firm dies, his idealistic widow radically ‘re-structures’ it and changes its business ‘concept’ (or ‘vision’) to that of providing ecumenical ‘spiritual experiences’ by transforming it into a tele-evangelist-type media church – with immediate benefits in terms of taxation and ‘data control’ under the law on freedom of religion. She looks forward hopefully to a post-enlightenment era that will mark ‘the end of rationality as the universal criterion.’ At the end of this subtle novel, Roland has escaped from the firm and lives ‘illegally’ with a dog on a suburban caravan site, supporting himself again by performing as a magician at children’s parties. The reader is left holding the loose threads of some profound ethical and cultural issues – including the unceasing growth of the electronic surveillance society – as well as with unanswered questions concerning some of the odder reaches of Swedish life – the ‘back yard of Eden’.

Peter Hogg

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