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Förrädare Ola Larsmo, Förrädare (Traitors)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2012.

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2013:2

Review Section: Fiction: The Past

In 1918, in the Civil War in Finland, the Whites beat the Reds after a very long struggle in the battle of Tampere. Lieutenant Landström was one of the ‘excellent officers from Sweden’ whom Mannerheim valued so highly. That observation is known from the history written by the Whites, but the introductory chapter of Förrädare presents another side of the story – Landström’s summary execution of raw Red recruits. It is a tragic scene, which forms the background to Larsmo’s story of ignorance and deceit.

In the next episode, which takes place twenty-one years later, Charlie Westerholm attends a student and faculty debate about whether to receive Jewish academic refugees. In the long, bitter discussion, Charlie speaks up for the refugees, but the majority are against. Disappointed, Charlie leaves, but is approached on his way out by the distinguished elderly figure of Cedergren, a member of the secret service. Cedergren invites him to join a new information bureau and Charlie accepts. Neutral Sweden is in fact a hotbed of sabotage, full of secret agents and refugees, and allows the transport of regular army and SS troops via Swedish Lapland to Norway. We then follow the lonely life of Charlie, who finds himself working in an extremely unfriendly environment. Travelling to the border during the fighting between the losing Norwegians and the victorious Germans, he meets up with Norwegian refugees. 

Sweden is now on the brink of war, but is militarily very ill-prepared. Charlie’s work includes the pursuit of suspected agents, which leads to his involvement in fights and dangerous situations. Many of his office colleagues are disappointed officers like Lieutenant Landström, fed up with their desk jobs and right-wing, often with Nazi sympathies. 

Charlie’s relationship to Nilla, his girlfriend, deteriorates and she leaves him, but she remains a useful contact with him through her work at the official refugee reception agency. When it comes to his notice that certain dossiers relating to refugees have disappeared, he also finds that several colleagues are implicated. The refugees have been sent to Nazi-occupied parts of Norway or back to Germany and have subsequently died in prisons or concentration camps.

Larsmo writes beautiful prose and is a master when it comes to creating atmosphere. Wartime Stockholm, with its buildings, streets and waterways, is brought vividly to life in all its bleak beauty. A great deal of sadness pervades the story of a man whose life is destroyed by his lonely, demanding work. Larsmo succeeds in expressing intimacy between people without using cliché. Seldom can we read a spy story of such psychological depth.

The dialogue in the book sounds remarkably authentic and reflects the stuffiness and formality of mid-20th-century Swedish speech. Larsmo displays great understanding of his characters, although admittedly the villains are described in a rather one-sided way.

One is left wishing the story would continue. The introductory episode about the war in Finland with its bitter cold and silence makes you long for an account of subsequent events. And, what happened after 1945? Did the secret service job totally destroy Charlie’s life?




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