Sweden: Millenium's distorting mirror

Not quite a fan of Abba. Lisbeth Salander, the Millenium saga heroine, as played by Noomi Rapace.
Not quite a fan of Abba. Lisbeth Salander, the Millenium saga heroine, as played by Noomi Rapace.
6 July 2010 – Fokus (Stockholm)

Does Sweden's celebrated social-democratic model still exist or has the Millenium saga, which depicts a society sunk in corruption and violence, killed it off? Stieg Larsson's English biographer puts the question to two other masters of the new wave in Northern noir. excerpts.

Does the average Britisher still have a stale, stereotypical image of Sweden in the age of the global village? Regrettably, I have to tell you: yes, he or she does. And I know this fact through writing about a man I never met. Before his untimely death at the age of 50 in 2004, Stieg Larsson had produced the remarkable crime trilogy that began with Men Who Hate Women (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the UK) – three books that continue to break sales records throughout the world in various translations.

When speaking to British writers for my book about Larsson’s life and work, I encountered again and again the image of Sweden as the country of Ikea furniture, football managers, Abba and limitless sexual freedom (that last element always mentioned with an envious smile). I also heard a more intellectually respectable stereotype from other non-Swedes, the country being celebrated for Ingmar Bergman and an admirable social democracy.

A paranoid vision of Sweden

Recently, I was pleased to be asked to take part in an event at the Ambassador’s residence (a few minutes from Regent’s Park) to be called ‘Stieg Larsson and Swedish Crime Fiction’. My imposing fellow guests included one of the finest Nordic writers of crime fiction, the (very tall) Håkan Nesser, creator of Van Veeteren, and Stieg Larsson’s editor Eva Gedin, who I had interviewed for The Times.

It was stiflingly hot on stage – and more heat was generated by the discussion, when it became clear to this Brit that the very dark image of Sweden in Larsson’s books (in which corruption reaches to all levels of the establishment, from the judiciary and the police to the secret service and the psychiatric institutions) was – for Swedes -- a highly contentious one.

Characters, sexuality and violence are over the top

Foreign readers are finding Larsson’s vision of Sweden unsettling and unfamiliar. "Larsson’s is not really the Sweden I know," said Håkan Nesser. ‘But if you dig deep it gets very dark sooner or later. On any soil, in any country." So is Nesser unsympathetic to Larsson’s paranoid view of Sweden? "No, but I’d say that Stieg wrote with a certain poetic licence. On the other hand, he was more deeply involved with clandestine aspects of the Swedish society than I am, where the high and mighty are the worst of crooks...’ He smiles: ‘Well, it’s nice to read about conspiracy theories -- it’s the poor man’s justification. It feels good to watch your rich neighbour’s fall from grace, doesn’t it?"

Johan Theorin, a more laid-back personality than Nesser, concedes that "The characters, the sexuality and the violence are, of course, over the top; as to the characters, I’ve met men whose personalities remind me a little of Mikael Blomkvist, though I have never even heard of anyone in Sweden who is similar to the fearsome Lisbeth Salander (another major character, a violent and autistic young woman).

Is social democratic ideal a hollow one?

Theorin continues: "The writer Anthony Burgess claimed that Scandinavians were the most law-abiding people in the whole world – and he had been all over, so he knew what he was talking about. He somehow tied this in to the fact that Scandinavians do not believe in God! Swedes like to trust people, and to be trusted in. If you tried to bribe a Swedish policeman, he would probably arrest you on the spot. We have a free press who are always hungry to expose any kind of government corruption, however small. But Stieg Larsson was an integral part of that press which constantly scrutinised the government, so perhaps he concentrated on the small misdemeanours of politicians instead of seeing that – generally -- everything works quite well.’

Despite his more conciliatory tone, Theorin’s attitude to Larsson’s jaundiced view is seeming to me rather like that of Nesser. I try another question: perhaps the social democratic ideal of Sweden is hollow in Larsson’s books, but does it still hold sway in the real world? He hesitates. "In an election year such as this one -- we elect a new government in September -- the social democratic ideals come back into the debate, and in the final analysis, it has to be said that Sweden is still a very fair country when it comes to healthcare and higher education – our taxes pay for that, mostly. Otherwise, it’s a fact that Sweden has become a capitalistic European country like almost everywhere else." When I ask Nesser and Theorin about the Swedish pride in Larsson for instance, Nesser adopts his trademark wry smile and says: ‘Yes, but, as always, everybody loves a left-wing crime writer like Stieg. But people are also proud of Abba, which is worse."

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