News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Old hatreds, new faces

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

The New Yorker delves into the question of the immense popularity and success of the Millenium trilogy novels and films of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson.**  (He died at 50 before the novels were published or films  were made.)  The New Yorker critic suggests that if you have  not  read the novels, you "have been in a coma, say, for the past two years."  I seem surrounded by the comatose, but I also have friends who find the novels too brutally violent to read.

For people like me who read  crime and mystery fiction late into the night as a  way to wind down from more serious and cerebral works, I sympathize with those who do not find the violence entertaining or diverting.  There are numerous best-sellers  being written by teams of formula hacks who work on the premise that gratuitous and perverse violence must punctuate "a good read."  I, also, find that many of the characters in contemporary popular writing are so contrived with smarmy appeal that they might deserve to suffer all the violence inflicted on them.  There are not many writers, such as the late Tony Hillerman with his Navajo police stories, who craft popular fiction that has genuine literary merit. And by literary merit, I mean largely characters who are not drawn from the formulas of archetype and stereotype and who provide an informing perspective on some of the realities that actually exist on the planet.  Literature, as opposed to hack fiction, works at uncovering the truth in all its nuances and complexities.  Hillerman made this the center of his writing enterprise; Larsson in his way does, too.  

For American readers, Larsson provides some important aesthetic distance.  His setting of Sweden is far enough removed from America that the aberrations portrayed do not demand self-identification, but it is similar enough to America to make them plausible.  The Sweden portrayed is not the land of Raoul Wallenberg  and Dag Hammarskjold, but a land that contains its share of human predators--Nazis, biker gangs,  various species of haters.

All four of my  grandparents were emigrants from Sweden.  My mother's mother, with whom I was best acquainted, and her two sisters came to America as single women.  Their brothers stayed in Sweden.  The reason single women left their families and came to America on their own is not often explored in the stories and history of immigration.  Those motives are totally lacking from any current discussion of illegal immigration into America.  They are essentially the same:  the quest for freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice--the escape from political and social systems that rank humans according to some system of human worth and consign them to lives of desperation,   As children, we used to beg for stories of my grandmother's girlhood in Sweden.  She would oblige us to a point, then finally say in her heavy Swedish accent that these things were what she left Sweden to get away from.  We children did not understand that what seemed to us like exotic tales were set in the context of a culture that predestined the lives of its people to oppression and drudgery.  I used to introduce my American literature surveys with the Swedish film "The Emigrants" so that students would have a background  in what motivated the invention and founding of America.

Literature which speaks cogently and powerfully to the situations people find themselves in provides a means to define, analyze, and understand those situations so that they might be changed or surmounted.  The appeal of Larsson's trilogy is that it reflects the contemporary emergence of a mentality that is hard to ignore, but just as hard to define with the besotting vocabulary with which the media obscures some otherwise naked truths.  After the name calling frenzy inspired by Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency, it is hard to tell when the terms Nazi,  fascist, communist, racist, etc., actually name some discernible trait or whether they are just the mindless sound and fury coming from the Limbaugh and Beck echo chambers.  Larsson's books provide narratives and imagery that give sharp definition to some of the things those terms apply to.

My family history and my education are steeped in the lore of Sweden.  I grew up in a town settled by people of Swedish descent.  I attended  a Swedish Lutheran college and later taught there.  During my teaching years there, I learned some facts about Sweden that have surfaced in Larsson's novels.  As a young professor, I was given a special duty assignment to review and help with the indexing of some personal papers that had been bequeathed to the college.  The papers dealt with local history, particularly as it involved native Americans.  Native American literature and culture was one of my specialties, so I was assigned to work in the archives in organizing those papers.  The college provided office space for retired professor in the archives, and some of  the emeritus professors gathered there to continue their own work and asked me questions about the project I was working on.   This prompted much discussion about political repression and discrimination that occurred in the world.  One of the retired professors was one of my philosophy professors.  He had been a professor at the University of Latvia, which is directly across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, until 1944 when he fled to Germany to escape the Soviet invasion of  Latvia.  In 1949, he was hired by the college out of a displaced persons camp in Germany.  Latvia had been invaded by the Soviet Union early in World War II,  then taken over by the Nazi Regime, and then repossessed by the Soviets in 1944.  Many Latvians fled to Germany and Sweden to escape the Soviets.  My former professor  who became a colleague was vehement in his denouncements of the Soviets.  Other of retired professors were informed about the role of Sweden at this time, and the matter of  the Nazis was talked about gingerly.  I was made aware that although Sweden was a center of resistance against the Nazis, it had its sympathizers, and there was much talk about the repression of minorities and the people who struggled against such oppression.  This history reemerges in Larsson's trilogy and sets the backdrop for the action.  Immigrants and displaced people are the catalysts that revive old hatreds into action. 

Sweden, like much of Europe and the U.S., has experienced an influx of immigrants, both invited and  uninvited, with the globalization of the world economies.  In response against the immigrants, a number of people have reacted by adopting conservative attitudes.  Larsson brings into play the racial and ethnic hatreds as they are revived from the past and he explores how they penetrate the culture and the government.  Sweden, which has joined other European nations in expelling Gypsies and other ethnic immigrants, is no longer a safe haven from the insidious hatreds of the Nazis and the brutal repression and violence of the Soviets.  His novels portray the revival  of hateful mindsets and those who resist and fight against them.

His novels contain many literary faults, which are covered by The New Yorker article, but they contain a power that attracts and engages a huge audience of readers and film-goers.  They manage to cut through the cacophony of media-driven politics to take a stark look at the moral ills that infect the human race.

During the past week a hate manifesto has been circulating the Internet and was reposted on South Dakota blogs. It is a list of old hatreds that has plagued the civilized world until it started working with the ideas of democracy, equality, liberty, and justice. It is a rather detailed map of the mentality of what is emerging as conservatism in the contemporary world.  It seethes with racial animosity, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, defamation of anyone and anything that does not conform to the mentality it maps out.

It is the expression of the hatreds and the mindsets that compose the villains in Larsson's novels, and it speaks strongly to our time.  And it is in that definition of the threats to democracy and its most vital tenets that define what the real divide is between what we think is liberalism and conservatism.  We can look at some distance at the destructive forces at work in Larsson's Sweden, and maybe we can recognize them when we find them in our own back yards.

**[Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books—“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008, American edition), “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009), and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)]

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

Great post, Doc. It's somewhere between Brazil, Eyes Wide Shut, V for Vendetta, and A Clockwork Orange.

We just saw "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" at the Myrna Loy in Helena. Very tame compared to the previous two.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States