Books

‘Sweden’s Dark Soul: The Unravelling of a Utopia’ review: Noir as reality

Racism, sexual assault, slave trade — Sweden’s squeaky clean image is ripped apart in an expat’s grim account

Swedish noir comes in many shapes and sizes, but this is the first time I’ve read it as non-fiction. Although popular crime writers such as Henning Mankell (who has been a mentor to the author of this book) and Stieg Larsson investigated the darker sides of Swedish society — to the extent that the king of Sweden felt compelled to remark that he didn’t appreciate such negative portrayals of his kingdom — it is really the non-fiction writers who have consistently reported on the country’s downside. And they have generally got away with it since they are not widely read outside the country and have only a limited local readership compared to the mass market crime fiction.

That might change now, as Kajsa Norman, a Swedish expat war correspondent expects to be made persona non grata in a country known for its high-ceilinged tradition of debate. She starts her book by quoting a former prime minister promising to stigmatise or brand with an iron (brännmärka) those ‘who speak ill of Sweden abroad’. She continues, ‘The more I dug, the more warnings I received: “Aren’t you afraid?” “You realize you’ll never be able to work in Sweden again.”’ This, then, seems to be a book that no Swedish publisher has dared to touch and so rather unusually for a Swedish writer, her book is first published outside the country in English.

Refuge in lies

Norman has constructed a complex plot mechanism, making the book as compelling as Swedish noir, except that the main overarching story here is a true one of systematic sexual assaults against very young teenage girls taking place at a youth festival in Stockholm over a period of 10 years, the news of which was blacked out by the mainstream media because it would have been politically incorrect to tell the truth: that the perpetrators were largely immigrant and refugee boys.

‘Sweden’s Dark Soul: The Unravelling of a Utopia’ review: Noir as reality

Norman discusses at length the perversity of the Swedish mentality — the ‘innate ability of Swedes simultaneously to emphatically maintain a moral position while actively participating in its violation’ and ‘an internalized herd mentality that shunned difference and sought consensus at all cost’. This is undergirded by an extreme political correctness and an ideal of equality that not only hampers individuals from exploring their individuality (the infamous ‘Law of Jante — the Nordic social code of egalitarian conformity’) but also makes it near impossible for outsiders to integrate into the society.

To investigate these particular matters deeper Norman employs two parallel narratives — written like fiction, with Capotesque dialogues and dramatised scenes — through which she does a spectacular job of bringing her protagonists alive.

One strand is about an Armenian movie buff, Samvel Arabekyan, who worships Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman so much that he migrates to Sweden and tries to become Swedish. His albinism makes him blonder than Swedes, and the ‘cold and the dark appeal to him. In Armenia he is different, in Armenia he is strange, but perhaps in Scandinavia he would fit in...’ Only to be thrown out of the country after eight years, by when he is so Swedish that even Swedes find it hard to believe he’s a foreigner.

Breaking news

The other is Chang Frick, a Swede from a community known as resandefolk, a subgroup of the Roma people or ‘gypsies’ who have been subjected to racism and enforced sterilisations and other atrocities through the 500 years they’ve been settled in Sweden.

At a young age, Chang who is his school’s svartskalle, or ‘black skull,’ a derogatory Swedish term for people with dark hair and brown eyes, decides to prove his Swedishness by turning rightwing nationalist. He eventually starts a news website to counter anti-right reporting, through which he breaks the news of the media-blackout regarding the teenage mass-molestation scandal.

Social engineering

Norman, intent on taking apart Sweden’s squeaky-clean image, paints a dirty picture of the country. She describes how its slave trade continued until long after countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. had banned it, the 19th century creation of a nationalistic discourse based on ahistorical notions largely grabbed out of thin air, the founding of the world’s first Institute of Racial Biology in Uppsala long before the Nazis came to power in Germany, and the ostensibly neutral Sweden’s illicit support for Germany during WWII.

Then there are the various insidious aspects of the welfare state project such as 20th century social engineering ‘to shape the individual, in order to effect desired societal change’ according to which ‘everything could and ought to be changed and improved: how and what to eat, how to dress, how to make one’s bed, how to express oneself, how to structure relationships’.

Norman’s dismissal of Sweden sometimes feels one-sided. One could, for example, counter-argue that excessive conformism was necessary for Sweden to take the great social leap from being a largely poor and unequal country in the 19th century to one of the world’s richest and most egalitarian in the 20th. But then Norman isn’t concerned with the face of the coin as much as its flipside.

Her incisive study mesmerises, amazes, shocks occasionally, but do I, as a Swede, feel insulted by this scathing takedown of the society I grew up in? Well, call me a masochist, but I find these verbal whiplashes revitalising. This forthright book — not at all as biased and scurrilous as it may seem if quoted out of context — will surely ruffle feathers among Sweden’s intellectual ducks and create refreshing ripples of debate in their shallow pool.

(Sweden’s Dark Soul: The Unravelling of a Utopia, written by Kajsa Norman and published by Hurst & Co. Priced at ₹1,825)

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:23:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/swedens-dark-soul-the-unravelling-of-a-utopia-review-noir-as-reality/article25807198.ece

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