Wahlström & Widstrand, 2011. ISBN: 9789146220886
Reviewed by Rick McGregor in SBR 2011:2
Many, myself included, consider Lukas Moodysson (b. 1969) to be one of the most significant Swedish film directors since Ingmar Bergman. With films such as Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, 1998), Together (2000) and Lilya 4-ever (2002) he has established himself as a film-maker of considerable talent, even if the critics have been less convinced by his more recent work: the very experimental A Hole in My Heart (2004) and his first international, more mainstream film Mammoth (2009). As well as being a film director of note, Moodysson is a writer, ever since his first collection of poetry in 1987, published while still in his teens. After further poetry collections and a first novel Vitt blod (White Blood, 1990), Moodysson trained as a film-maker, but he has now returned to prose writing with his latest book, Döden & Co. . It would be easy to read the book as autobiography, since the first-person protagonist shares many aspects of Moodysson’s own biography, including his Christian name (here spelt ’Lucas’, the careful reader will note). That one should not do so is made apparent both by the designation ‘novel’ on the title page (a common feature in Swedish publishing) and by easily discovered discrepancies between the life of the author and his alter ego in the novel. There is no doubt that Moodysson writes well. The book is easy to read despite the complexity of its subject matter. Distilled right down to its essence, it is about Lucas coming to terms with the death of his estranged and alcoholic father, but it tackles much more than that: a film-maker and author’s writer’s block; child prostitution in Bangkok and the Philippines; music, film and literature (among much else, Jane Austen’s Emma, Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and Truman Capote are referred to; the title is taken from a poem by Sylvia Plath); chess players such as Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik; models and actresses such as Marilyn Monroe, Kate Moss and Natalia Vodianova. The protagonist also lingeringly regrets the break-up of his youthful relationship with a girl he calls M. The reader who appreciates a challenge will be kept on his or her toes by the inter- and intra-textual references scattered throughout the novel. A recurring theme in recent Swedish writing has been the author’s and/or narrator’s difficult relationship with ‘the father’, often after his death. When written as autobiography, the reader is prepared to give the writer some leeway in terms of form. The problem here, as I see it, is that Moodysson chooses to label his book a novel, but fails to shape his material into something cohesive. As a novel, it lacks a plot to drive the story forward. In fact one could say there is no story. As ponderings on the nature of a son’s relationship with his father, on the other hand, it makes for fascinating reading, despite the narrator’s selfabsorption. The preoccupation with M, on the other hand, tends towards the pathetic, as M herself points out in an imaginary discussion with Lucas near the end of the book. Swedish reviewer Lina Arvidsson writes: ‘I take back my opinion that Moodysson’s language fails because of its simplicity; in fact it is strikingly effective in its nakedness. Rather it is the content that goes nowhere. Only at the end does the plot come to grips with the narrator’s self-absorbed ego. In my opinion that is at least 100 pages too late.’ I am inclined to agree; Döden & Co. is prose writing of a high standard, but the work as a whole would have benefited from a greater sense of narrative direction – and more stringent editing.