Reviewed by Eric Dickens in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Kjell Eriksson (born 1953) is best known in Sweden and abroad for his crime novels, often set in Uppsala. He has written a suite of ten with the police officer Ann Lindell as protagonist. She climbs the ranks over the course of these novels and shows herself to be someone who can think for herself. Five of these books have appeared in English translation by Ebba Segerberg and Paul Norlén. Eriksson belongs to the middle generation of crime writers, younger than Håkan Nesser and Henning Mankell, older than Stieg Larsson and Camilla Läckberg. Earlier in life, he worked as a gardener before becoming a full-time author.
Now Eriksson has made a new departure with his latest novel Att skjuta hästar, which is set in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and deals with war rather than crime. The reader is introduced to six partisans, all male fighting on the Republican side against Franco and his fascist troops and allies.They come from different countries:Sweden, Britain, France, Italy, USA and Germany. They are forced to communicate in shards of Spanish, plus various other pairs of languages.
The novel is very much about male bonding, loyalty and betrayal. Some of the partisans come from a peasant background, while Dieter, the German, has a Communist background and is the intellectual of the bunch, fancying himself as a kind of commissar. After being wounded in the first few pages of the novel, he becomes something of a liability, as his comrades have to literally carry him along. The American is of Polish-Jewish origin, the Englishman of a more middle-class background than the others, while the Italian is more anarchist by inclination. They aspire to join up with larger groups of Republican fighters, but they have to struggle across tough terrain to achieve this. Spontaneous decision-making about tactics, routes, and acts of sabotage becomes more difficult as time goes on, as the partisans have no clear hierarchy and ranking.
Although there are several bloody battle scenes, other parts of the novel involve a subtler examination of the men’s longings and aspirations as they cross the mountains and trudge along carrying large amounts of stolen equipment and food. How they are looked upon by the ordinary Spanish people is also interesting. The first village they enter, where Dieter is given medical care, is very poor; the second one, by contrast, is rich.
The Swedish protagonist and narrator, Alfons Andersson, almost becomes Kjell Eriksson’s alter ego because he keeps reminiscing about his rural home province of Uppland. In these flashbacks he describes his life there and that of his parents and the woman he left behind. They are passages filled with nostalgia and homesickness. More objectively, the landscape, farming techniques and equipment in Uppland are also compared with what the narrator sees in Spain.
Women are not prominent in this novel; the camaraderie remains predominantly male. There is the mysterious old nurse in the first village plus references to her daughter who died and who is often in Alfons’s thoughts. Then there is the woman partisan, Céleste, whom they meet in the second village and with whom Alfons falls in love. There is little explicit sex in the novel because of the circumstances the fighters find themselves in.
I will not comment here on the fates of the six foreign partisans and their Spanish companions, as this would constitute a spoiler. Suffice it to say that this is a novel of violence and feelings.