Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
‘The Minister rose to his feet and bellowed. A Great Power? It was global supremacy we were talking about! The country dominated the market in conscience. And that product accounted for 74% of exports!’
Such is the economy of ‘Thule’, an island realm in the far North shown to us through the eyes of a late 18th-century French Encyclopédie contributor reporting back to a countess and a circle of Enlightenment philosophers in Paris. The foreign traveller in a supposedly exotic land is a trope that places Espmark in the venerable company of Thomas More, Swift and – fittingly, given his protagonist’s nationality – Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire. Like Swift’s Gulliver, Espmark’s nameless narrator is a channel for satire of the contemporary social and political scene.
What brings the Frenchman to ‘Thule’ is his interest in its supposedly Utopian form of government at a time when France is still under absolutist rule. He finds much to intrigue him, but rather less to admire. Though Montesquieu’s separation of powers is observed (albeit with no awareness of the philosophical background), parliament all too often confines itself to rubber-stamping government proposals. The political parties are at loggerheads, though not for ideological reasons. This is a system ‘characterised by irreconcilable consensus’. In fact, the word ‘opinion’ has no plural in the local language. While Parisian intellectuals have mooted the idea of a prototypical kilogram, the narrator is startled to discover Thule’s equivalent: a ‘standard national Opinion’, protected by a glass dome.
The people of Thule are burdened by a vicarious guilt in which their own violent past plays no part. ‘This country seems to have no history,’ remarks the narrator, despite allusions to the Thirty Years War. Any aspects of the past that might continue to weigh on the country are dumped in a polluted lake known as The Archive. Yet the all-pervasive sense of guilt enables this ‘moral Great Power’ to export ‘sun-dried conscience’ to the rest of the world. Its next largest export (before herring) is peace – in the form of cannons.
Espmark appears to take a particularly jaundiced view of education in ‘Thule’. A typical school claims to promote child-centred learning, to which the narrator retorts that failure to instil the basics actually discriminates against disadvantaged pupils. The child as ‘an active participant in knowledge creation’ may represent a noble idea, worthy of Rousseau’s Emile, but reality looks less inspiring. As for academic research, traditional physics – a manifestation of ‘the white male power structure’ – has given way to ‘relational physics’. Moreover, the laws of gravity have been partially suspended by the legislature.
Nor do the arts escape censure. Espmark castigates government policies that instrumentalise culture in the service of public health and the economy. On a more frivolous note, he takes a pot shot at a fellow literary lion (from another Nordic country, we understand) whose serial autobiography, provocatively titled Emulating Jesus, takes until volume eleven to describe starting school.
Is there any substance to Espmark’s very thinly disguised caricature of contemporary Sweden? Some of his targets – bankers who award each other bonuses, the cult of the ‘invisible hand of the market’, and arms salesmen – are richly deserving of Swiftian satire. In progressive education and the inclusion of non-patriarchal perspectives in academia, however, Espmark seems to have set up a whole platoon of straw men. The existence of a ‘standard national Opinion’ is more than doubtful at a time of refugee crises that has pitted the left against the far right. And as for the export of Conscience, one can only wish Sweden success in such an endeavour. Witty, provocative and amusing, Espmark’s Journey to Thule seems rather lightweight or an age in which – to paraphrase the brilliant Tom Lehrer – satire has largely been rendered redundant by reality.