Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
Could it be that historians have a suppressed urge to transform the past into romance? Henrik Berggren’s previous book was a measured, much-praised study of Prime Minister Olof Palme and his role in establishing the Swedish welfare state. Now, in Det röda arvet, Berggren lets rip: he has placed a complicated but nicely plotted cloak-and-dagger thriller, sweetened by an affair of the heart, inside a narrative framework based on recent and not-so-recent historical fact.
The hero is a young political historian, Thomas Thorild, who is working on a life of a socialist politician called Erik Johansson. Moira Byrne, a gorgeous Irish journalist, contacts him: she is investigating the relationship between Johansson and an Irishman called Seamus O’Hara. During the Spanish Civil War, both men fought in the International Brigade and may have kept in close touch afterwards. Moira is all green-eyed vivacity, and a charmed Thomas starts looking into this aspect of his subject’s past.
It doesn’t take him long to find out that his task will uncover dark, even dangerous secrets. He finds himself trailed by a sinister American agent, who seems very keen to cast doubts on Moira’s integrity and to embargo anything Thomas finds out. And Moira has been economical with the truth: she is O’Hara’s granddaughter, and her keen interest in the O’Hara-Johansson friendship is related, for shadowy reasons, to her hatred of Harry Maddox, an American media tycoon. She has been sacked by this ruthless Rupert Murdoch type, who was himself once a recruit in the International Brigade Thomas’s adventures are interleaved with flashbacks to Spain and the lost battles of the Republican army, far too briefly reflected in extracts from authentic newspaper reports. Johansson,O’Hara and Maddox end up in the same notorious POW camp and are recruited by the psychiatrist Vallejo-Nájera as test subjects in a study aimed at proving the hypothesis that left-wing convictions are due to mental inferiority. The three young men manage to escape together and set out to cross the Pyrenees on foot. Maddox shows himself to be driven by greed (missing gold from the Spanish treasury is involved), duplicitous and, when push comes to very nasty shove, murderous. His companions’ reluctant complicity turns into moral burdens that both of them carry for the rest of their lives. Despite another set of contemporary complications, the story ends (quite) happily.
There could be more flesh on the skeleton account of the historical context, the plot occasionally slides into over-complicated opacity and some of the characters are types rather than real people. Does any of this matter? Not much – Det röda arvet is an exciting, often thought-provoking read.