Inside Story

Paradise lost

What price utopia? Two new memoirs and a series of crime novels give some clues

Peter Browne 2 April 2009 2153 words

Their plots were “second to none”: Swedish crime writers Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. TT News Agency/Alamy

The Martin Beck series
By Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö | Harper Perennial | $19.99 each

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared
By Andrew Brown | Granta | $49.95

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria
By Kapka Kassabova | Portobello Books | $26.99

One evening sometime in the early 1960s the journalists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö put their children to bed and sat down to map out a series of crime novels set in contemporary Sweden. Their aim, Wahlöö said later (and don’t let this put you off), was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperised and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.”

In ten detective novels published over the next decade, each of thirty chapters, Sjöwall and Wahlöö painted an increasingly dark picture of Swedish society. The best of the series, writes Julian Symons in his history of the crime novel, Bloody Murder, “are among the most original modern crime stories.” Sjöwall and Wahlöö, he says, “sometimes succeeded in doing things that no other crime writer even attempted.” Their plots are “second to none,” says Val McDermid, who bought all ten books in 1979 after reading Symons’s recommendation. “Whoever is writing crime fiction after these novels is inspired by them in one way or another,” adds Henning Mankell, now Sweden’s best-known crime novelist, introducing the first in Harper Perennial’s reissue of the ten books.

But the series is also quite strange – or at least it becomes stranger as it goes along. At first, like Trotskyists infiltrating a local Labor Party branch, Sjöwall and Wahlöö get under the reader’s defences with several novels that read much like conventional police procedurals. The focus is tight, the dialogue crisp, no words are wasted. Later, as the books grow longer and the social commentary more caustic, their distinctive character becomes more obvious but the results less successful. The main character, Martin Beck, becomes in some ways a more reliable observer than the authors.

Beck, a melancholy detective inspector who leads a team of idiosyncratic homicide investigators, is the linchpin of the series. When the first book opens his marriage is a mess, his appetite intermittent and his idealism under siege. His superiors spend more time worrying about politics than crime, and when they do intervene in a case the effects are disastrous. Like Georges Simenon’s Maigret, Beck is empathetic and meticulous, immersed in his work; but he is less philosophical than Maigret, more likely to become despondent as a case approaches resolution.

In his introduction to Roseanna, which opens the series, Henning Mankell says that this is “probably one of the first crime novels in which time clearly plays a major role.” Collecting evidence, interviewing suspects, even placing an international phone call – these routine processes often take a long time in these novels. In one case a vital clue is revealed only after Beck posts a letter to a policeman in America and, weeks later, receives a reply.

The series also covers a very specific historical period. The Man on the Balcony, the third novel in the series, opens in Stockholm at “half past six on the morning of June 2, 1967”; the sixth, Murder at the Savoy, begins in the coastal town of Malmö in “early July 1969.” In The Laughing Policeman, the first foreign novel to win the Edgar Award for mystery writing in the United States, young Swedes protest against the Vietnam War outside the US embassy. Partway through the series Swedish drivers make the switch from the left to the right side of the road.

As the series progresses the political and social atmosphere deteriorates and the books become longer and more tendentious, but by now most readers will be hooked. The government and its well-heeled cronies exploit ordinary Swedes, who resort to drink and petty crime or withdraw into cocoons of pointless comfort. The politicians are short-sighted careerists; private wealth is founded on dishonesty and political favours. Beck and his offsider, Lennart Kollberg, are among the only honest men left standing.

Until I read Andrew Brown’s memoir, Fishing in Utopia, the contrast between Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s portrayal of Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s and the conventional image of a clean, efficient, prosperous nation seemed puzzling. Reviewers of the series refer to its “incisive and realistic portrait” of a welfare state in decline, yet those years were probably the apex of Swedish social democracy. Living standards were rising, the welfare state was generous, and Volvo, Saab and Ericsson were among the most successful of international companies.

Brown’s theory is that Sjöwall and Wahlöö could see the likelihood of Marxist revolution receding with every rise in Swedish national income. That might be right, but I think another clue to the two authors’ disillusionment lies in Brown’s description of the Sweden in which he lived a few years after the last Martin Beck novel was published. What strikes Brown (who had also lived in Sweden as a child in the 1960s) is the sterile ugliness of the mushrooming housing estates and the conformity and passivity of many Swedes.

“After the honeymooon” – Brown had married Anita, a young Swedish nurse he’d met in Wales – “we moved thirty kilometres south from Lilla Edet to Nödinge, a purpose built suburb of Götenborg: about two thousand flats arranged in low concrete blocks the colour of dog turds on a glacial plain by the river.” These new flats were a result of the Social Democrat government’s decision to build a million new homes – “irrespective of whether anyone wanted to live in them,” according to Brown – at a time when the national population was only eight million.

“The first thing that struck me was the loneliness,” he writes. “The roads within the estate were all closed to traffic but pedestrians always seemed scarce. The houses might be wonderfully warm, and the spacious kitchens of even the most basic flats were equipped with fridges, freezers, and separate coolers… But the public places always felt as cold as November. Even on sunny days I wanted to scuttle through them as if a cold rain were lashing me.”

For Marxist romantics (as Sjöwall and Wahlöö surely were), a scene like this, with its echoes of the charmless concrete apartment blocks of Eastern Europe, must have raised uncomfortable questions. Sweden certainly wasn’t a communist country, but the degree of central planning and the alienation experienced by many of the Swedes Beck encounters in some ways echoes the “actually existing socialism” just across the Baltic Sea. The politicised bureaucrats who stand in Beck’s way are comical versions of the sinister crowd of apparatchiks that ran things on the other side of the iron curtain.

For Brown, urban Sweden serves mainly as a contrast to the country’s remarkable rural landscape, which extends from the relatively warm south – the countryside in which Mankell’s Wallander series is set – to the vast chilliness of the north. Brown, who starts out working in a wooden pallet factory and ends up writing for British newspapers and magazines, very effectively weaves his twin interests – the political and social culture of Sweden and the art and science of fishing – into a compelling, beautifully written and often very funny account of his years living in, and later visiting, Sweden.

These were also the years in which the social democratic vision of the good society – the utopia of the book’s title – gave way to uncertainty and counter-reform. An unexpected financial crunch created unemployment in a country where joblessness had seemed defeated once and for all. Feeding into the sense of uncertainty was a series of race-related protests in some of the hardest-hit towns. The Social Democrats were thrown out of government at the 1991 election, replaced by a centre-right coalition. “Dogmatic socialism was replaced by dogmatic distrust of the power of the state,” writes Brown. “[I]nequality increased as a fact, and was accepted as an ideal.” Although the Social Democtats returned to government three years later, the mood had changed forever.

In the process Sweden either lost its character or experienced a renewal – Brown isn’t sure which. Or maybe both things happened. Visiting in 1997, he returns to the flats at Nödinge, home to people who can’t afford to live anywhere else, and finds the area “airy, prosperous and clearly cared for.” The school is not just new, but pleasing to look at. The school librarian tells him that some time in the mid-1990s the authorities had decided “to develop Nödinge as a place where people might want to live, and since then everything had got better.” In nearby Gothenburg, the city centre is both “more gentrified and more sleazy than it used to be.” A long drive north brings Brown to an elaborate Midsummer Feast based on a centuries-old tradition.

Brown is fascinated by Swedish culture, but he also likes leaving it behind. “The patient watchful wonder of the fisherman seems to me to be the root of all science,” he writes. “In sea fishing this mapping and bringing of order from the formless, shifting waves is especially ambitious. Attention broods over the water like the spirit in Genesis, moving, casting, until suddenly all the possibilities are narrowed into one taut line. Perhaps this explains why I have always sought the sea at times of upset and disturbance in my life. The fish comes like an answer, the rod in my hand a divining instrument.”

Across the Baltic and about 1500 kilometres south of Sweden is Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Here, just as Andrew Brown was beginning to write about Sweden for the British press, Kapka Kassabova, her parents and her baby sister were moving from a tiny bedsit, where her father had finished writing his PhD thesis, to a slightly larger flat in one of those concrete apartment blocks that dotted the suburbs of Soviet-leaning cities from Prague to Hanoi.

A few years old, the tower blocks were set in muddy wastelands in the suburbs, chunks of their external walls already falling off. “Seen from a distance,” writes Kassabova in Street Without A Name, “their hide was peeling and they wept grey tears, like mutant monsters squatting in their own waste.” Her parents were professionals made miserable by the brutally incompetent regime, their unhappiness compounded by a glimpse of a different world during two years spent working in England.

Kapka also catches glimpses of another sort of existence much closer to home, in Sofia, when she goes to her piano lessons in an old part of the capital where party officials and other privileged citizens lived in late nineteenth century homes near leafy parks. Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, shop at the under-stocked, government-run Central Universal Shop – which “was not universal, but it was central, and it was, occasionally, a store” – and Kapka goes off each day to Unitary Secondary Polytechnic School 81. There, she joins Class E, made up of “thirty-two kids who were alphabetically numbered, and I was Number Sixteen.”

The life Kassabova describes in this part-memoir, part-travel book includes many of the scenes familiar from earlier accounts of Eastern Europe in its dying days. But her acute and often very funny observations make Street With No Name a particularly vivid picture of the impact of bureaucratic communism on the morale of its citizens. In Sofia’s filthy public toilets, for example, Kassabova finds forceful evidence of the regime’s dislike of its own citizens. When her mother uses a public toilet in Holland during a brief visit, her reaction is visceral:

My mother had experienced the toilets of hospitals after giving birth, during kidney surgery, during her mother’s hospitalisation with cancer. She had endured the toilets at the Central Institute of Computational Technology, and the toilets at freezing railway stations. And so there she stood, in the sparkling, perfumed, pink-toilet-papered, flower-arranged, mirrored, white marble toilet of Delft University, clean as a surgery theatre, gilded as an opera hill, bigger than our apartment… and she cried.”

The government of Bulgaria had managed to turn utopia from the goal of socialist revolution into a restroom in Holland.

Although her descriptions of Bulgaria’s cities, towns and landscape are vivid, it is Kassabova’s account of her encounters with relatives, acquaintances and strangers that brings this book alive – both in its first half, which describes Kassabova’s childhood, and in later her accounts of return visits to a country still struggling to cope with new freedoms. Like the nations that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria’s borders (with Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey) are the product of centuries of conflict, and disputes over territory still linger.

Despite the enormous differences between the two countries, the post-communist Bulgaria of the nineties and the early twenty-first century shares some of the characteristics of Swedish life – the aimless materialism and the corruption and crime – that worried Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the late sixties and early seventies. Both were societies in transition, and in neither case was it clear whether the best of their cultures would survive. •