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Lars Jakobson, Vännerna (The Friends)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100122591

Reviewed by Carl Otto Werkelid in SBR 2010:2

Review translated by Anna Paterson

It is 25 years since Lars Jakobson (born 1959), saw his first novel in print. After publishing a new book almost every two years, he is still not widely known.This is unfair. Moreover, it is a great pity; among contemporary Swedish storytellers, he is one of the most original and also one of the relatively few whose narratives, with their febrile, structured mixture of curiosity and anxiety, are capable of capturing present and future issues of our time. If the general public can look forward to great discoveries in Jakobson’s fiction, the literary establishment has already rewarded his art with remarkable generosity, including newspaper prizes, praise from the Swedish Academy and a Selma Lagerlöf Trust award. True to his trademark style, Jakobson’s new novel is large and intricately constructed – it is a literary hybrid, alive with a pulse thatoscillates between fiction and documentary and balances with sophisticated skill, often at great height, on the edge of steep precipices. The story or, rather, the more or less intertwined storylines, vibrate in a shared echo-chamber, a huge, eccentric building in Kymlinge (a community north of Stockholm) raised by the mythic figure of Janis Rokka as a kind of tribute to the Swedish ‘people’s home’, which the former Baltic refugee had to thank for his life and his success. Now, behind the statuesque, almost Prime Ministerial façade, events and feelings accelerate swiftly through all possible and impossible loci and passages of his mind and make us, the readers, feel ensconced – all the while exposed to cold floor draughts and unpleasant smells – in this Folk Mausoleum.The prevailing time is an alloy, based on an immediately past, a current and a future now that is only a tiny step ahead. What does it all mean? Is it about the Zeitgeist, a blind belief in the progress and the kind of people created in the climate of our time? And about the so-called information society, which naively allows itself to channel all-powerful means of control and, in the passing, puts human integrity up for sale in the open market? Indeed, such patterns take shape and float up onto the surface of the massive magma-flow of text – over 500 pages. In addition, we now and then encounter a person, or someone who persists with the attempt to be some kind of person. The living advertising pillar Anncha; the ex-care manager Åsa, whose character flaws suit the current ethos to perfection, as shown by her cynically earning a quick crust by staging ill-treatment of old people. We meet David the hologram maker, perhaps the most interesting character of them all, whose art lets him create The Friends to populate every empty space, but who himself shows the signs of an approaching major breakdown.Then there is the magnate Janis Rokka, who may be dead or alive, but on whose mountain range of manically collected memories the stories arise. Does all this add up to a novel? Not strictly. To a gigantic epitaph, perhaps, intended to contain so much that immediacy is often lost; so much must be found a place for on this ingeniously composed canvas that beating hearts, glances and gusts of breath only rarely reach us. Occasionally, the narrator, a certain LJ, goes into attack mode to challenge another contemporary Swedish writer up close, in storyteller’s hitand-run episodes which suggest that the author needed a break from the elephantine task he set himself, but which, to the reader, are no more than peculiar stops in the flow of the story. Such lapses mar Vännerna,an important and in so many ways skilfully constructed novel. Even so: repeatedly, if reluctantly captivated, one engages once more with the reading. One explanation is, of course, the intensity of the story; another is that Lars Jakobson writes so beautifully: his language is alive and questing, never takes shortcuts, never sinks into ingratiating appeals.

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