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Wrestlarna Viktor Johansson, Wrestlarna (The Wrestlers)

Wahlström & Widstrand,  2011. ISBN: 9789146221029

Reviewed by Agnes Broome and Nichola Smalley in SBR 2012:1

Reviewed along with Hassan Loo Sattarvandi, Belägring (Siege)

In Wrestlarna (The Wrestlers), four individual narratives wind through the cold, technologically-mediated world of today’s youth. In ‘The Skaters’, we glimpse the frustrated talent of Lukas through the fisheye lens of his lovelorn friend Rikard. We watch, horrified, alongside Björn’s mother, as she patches together an image of her dead son through films made by him and his fellow cineastes. Millan, The Video Blogger, holds up her camera phone for us to catch every instant for her infamous blog. And the computer screen flickers as The Webcam Girls sulkily perform their childlike rituals for the imaginary titillation of Alicia’s father.

Belägring (Siege) is a story of violence and of trying to find your way in a hostile environment, of growing up in a broken home in a neglected suburb of Stockholm in the 1990s, and of the conflict caused by wanting both to escape and to belong. It is the story of Caspian, a young man full of promise and confusion, and of a fateful day that changes everything. The reader eavesdrops on Caspian’s nocturnal phone conversation with a friend, in which the events of the day slowly unfold.

NS: The first thing that occurred to me is that both novels represent some kind of dissent among young people in contemporary society, but approach this in quite different ways.

AB: Although it was set in the past, Belägring felt more immediate and accessible to me; Wrestlarna was more alienating, deliberately so perhaps.

NS: Perhaps that was because Belägring is very raw and inward looking, whereas everything in Wrestlarna is viewed coldly through lenses or screens.

AB: Interesting point, although in fact, both stories are mediated through technology, one through the phone, the other through blogs, etc. That increased the feeling of alienation for me, even though both novels contain intimate, reveal-all narratives.

NS: I’d forgotten about the phone device. Perhaps, because they both dwell on technology in this way, they could be seen as a snapshot of contemporary society. Accordingly, though, I imagine they may date very quickly. I found the technology aspect of Wrestlarna problematic for other reasons too - I couldn’t feel any real sympathy with the characters’ concerns, as I felt alienated by the narrative distance.

AB: In Wrestlarna I had the sense that if the people could find community or love then they could be redeemed somehow, but in Belägring it seemed that even being part of a community isn’t enough, that it, too, corrupts and alienates.

NS: Yes… moreover, I thought that the characters in Wrestlarna seemed to be observing others and either judging or romanticising them. They were at least engaging with them in some way. They also seemed to believe strongly in what they were trying to do – despite everyone else ignoring them. Belägring centred on Caspian’s self-romanticisation and self-condemnation, regardless of the potential everyone else saw in him. AB: I felt that Belägring proposed a more traditional sociological explanation. It was clear why the protagonist was in trouble: poverty, broken home – all that. In Wrestlarna, the young people are even more broken but this seems to be caused by society generally rather than any particular condition of their background.

AB: Both books were very dark, as I would expect from Swedish youth fiction. There was a lot of destruction, slow and creeping, as well as sudden and violent.

NS: And a sort of contradictory intensity. For instance, alongside the protagonists’ furious disrespect and/or disregard for adults they had intense feelings about parental relationships. True, that’s surely not uncommon in literature dealing with young people.

AB: I found it interesting that both authors opted for an unconventional writing style and I liked the fact that they tried to give their protagonists strong, ‘alternative’ voices. Unfortunately, I also felt that both authors used inconsistent registers, which was particularly disturbing when form and voice were so central. It distracted me a lot, particularly in Belägring.

NS: Did you enjoy either of the two books?

AB: Yes, I enjoyed Belägring quite a lot, but with reservations. I found Wrestlarna more difficult to like, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. You?

NS: I enjoyed Belägring, too. The issue that I had with it was the author’s need to constantly remind the reader that the story was being told via a phone conversation – it became awkward and repetitive.

AB: Exactly! And I thought the phone thing jarred because it made me think about how improbable the conversation was, even though the story was believable in itself.

NS: On the whole, though, Belägring seemed to me to be a nuanced exploration of Caspian’s struggles with himself and others’ expectations of him, and an astute representation of that typically teenage desire to underplay one’s own intelligence.

AB: Wrestlarna, then? What did you think of that? NS: I actually enjoyed Wrestlarna a lot less than I expected to. The opening chapter had me quite excited, and I started thinking: hmm, potential translation project... But in the end, it made me feel really uneasy. It was so cynical and stubbornly grim. But I think in some ways, it was truthful. I can actually imagine teenagers in provincial Swedish towns being that naively cynical and selfobsessed.

AB: It reminded me a lot of Lukas Moodyson’s film A Hole in My Heart.

NS: Is that his film about a porn movie? AB: Yeah, that’s the one. It has the same alienation, the indistinct outer world, and the obsession with gaze/screens and sex/ exploitation.

NS: Oh, I found that film really irritating. There were definitely similarities with Wrestlarna, it felt similarly reactionary and spiteful ….

NS: Reading the back of the cover makes me feel a bit queasy. Here’s a very rough translation: ‘The Wrestlers is an acute contemporary novel about wanting to please, about knowing one’s worth in the job world, and on other markets. All in a world where creativity and artistic sensibilities are mostly seen as surplus energy. It opens up a chasm between young people’s boundless potential and the social roles they are to be limited to.’

AB: To me, that doesn’t correspond very well with the book. It serves to set up an artistic v. material dichotomy, with art as a force for good. I thought much of the artistic work done by the characters seemed unsound and destructive. NS: Or maybe we just fail to recognise the genius of their work? AB: Perhaps it would be fair to say simply that Wrestlarna and Belägring, though two very different stories, are both about the struggle to find one’s way and create a safe space in a lonely and hostile world.

Also by Viktor Johansson

  • Bonsaikatt (Bonsai Cat). Reviewed by Martin Murrell in SBR 2015:2.

Other reviews by Agnes Broome and Nichola Smalley

Other reviews in SBR 2012:1

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