Nya människor i fel ordning
(New People in the Wrong Order)
by Jonas Karlsson
reviewed by Henry Jeppesen
Nya människor i fel ordning is a collection of short stories by Jonas Karlsson, a hugely successful author and actor on both stage and screen (big and small), and the recipient of countless acting awards, as well as the winner of the Ludvig Nordström literary award in 2018. It is about people trying to improve or change themselves in some way, to be somebody else, but who are not too sure how to do this. As the title suggests, the stories and their main protagonists aren’t necessarily in the right chronological order, and indeed, a couple of stories take place in some of the characters’ childhoods. However, putting the stories in the right order chronologically would be something that more predictable authors would do, and Karlsson can certainly not be described as predictable.
The eleven short stories, which are intertwined, feature a motley crew of characters, from a psychologist/amateur priest to an annoying singer-songwriter, and from an angry partner to a boy who decides to go a whole day at school without speaking. The two main characters in the collection are brothers Patrik and Anders, who have both been seriously affected by the recent death of their father. Anders is a journalist/author and Patrik works in IT, and the first few stories that either or both of them feature in make it clear that their relationship could be better. A feeling of melancholy pervades some of the stories. Happiness isn’t a frequent theme here. Both brothers, the reader discovers, are separated from their partners.
It would be lovely to tell you about every single story, but I will tantalise you by describing a few of them. In the first story, Orättfärdigt (Unjust), we learn that Anders and Frida have split up, but are invited to the same social event, and after consuming a few glasses of the falling-down water, she launches into a tirade of abuse at Anders, throws her drink over him, and accuses him of various misdemeanours committed at the party, of which it turns out Anders is guilty as charged. Later on in the collection, in Objektet (The Object), after having chosen his father’s old house over his boat, which Anders inherits, Patrik and his then-partner Vickan go to the house in the countryside and decide to try and sell it to one of Patrik’s friends, if they are interested. Vickan is a horrible person, but it is fun to read what she has to say. She dissuades his friends from buying the house and sends one of them away with his tail between his legs after he intimates that he wants her to engage in a sexual act with his brother. It is difficult to comprehend why she and Patrik are still together and, understandably, they have split up by the time Patrik opens his heart to psychologist/‘priest’ Kent in Köpa tur (Buying Luck), who takes advantage of Patrik’s emotional torpor, and fleeces him for a considerable sum of kronor.
Karlsson is very adept at linking all the stories, which makes reading the book intriguing, as the reader wants to continue to the next story to find out who the star is, and where Karlsson will go with the next tale. I feel that this collection would fare well in English-speaking countries (and elsewhere) if translated, as it features many interesting and relatable characters. Jonas Karlsson deserves to be discovered by a wider readership, and this book makes a good introduction to both the Kafkaesque and the slightly less Kafkaesque aspects of his writing.
Nya människor i fel ordning
Wahlström & Widstrand, 2021
Foreign rights: Federico Ambrosini, Salomonsson Agency
Jonas Karlsson’s Jag är en tjuv was reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2016:1. My Friend at Gondolen; I appeared in Linda Schenck’s translation in SBR 2015:1. The Commission appeared in Darcy Hurford’s translation in SBR 2011:1. The Room, The Invoice, and The Circus have appeared in Neil Smith’s translation at Hogarth Press.
(The Red Room)
by Kaj Korkea-aho
reviewed by Michael O. Jones
Korkea-aho’s Röda rummet details the sacrifices society demands of its citizens and the things we sometimes have to do to get by. The novel’s unnamed protagonist lives in present-day Helsinki, and the titular Red Room is a fictional BDSM room in a Helsinki flat renowned amongst the city’s gay BDSM subculture in the 1980s-1990s. The central character becomes involved in a story whose set-up promises a twisted depiction of power struggles, exploitation, and abuse within Helsinki’s gay subculture. Unfortunately, the story fails to deliver on its promises.
The 29-year-old main protagonist returns from Berlin after a whirlwind romance ends in lies, prostitution, and violent abuse. He places an ad in a Helsinki newspaper offering to write a novel in exchange for a place to live. Eventually, an older man named Aimo responds, and the protagonist moves into his rental flat. However, there are forebodings from their very first meeting: something is wrong with Aimo’s home-help Emmanuel and the relationship between the two, while Aimo’s motivations for accepting the main protagonist’s offer appear not to be wholly above board.
As with Korkea-aho’s other writings, the story is told in easily-read, no-frills modern prose. This makes it easily accessible to a general audience, a positive given the book’s niche nature. A downside of this prose style is that it feels both transitory and functionalist, serving a purpose rather than being an art in itself. In this, it doesn’t offer its own aesthetic pleasure as the writing of other authors might, and it does little to impress itself on my mind.
The novel begins well, setting the stage by introducing important events from the protagonist’s life such as his abusive relationship, his willingness to ignore bad treatment in order to avoid loneliness, Helsinki’s desperate housing market, and the asymmetric nature of Aimo and Emmanuel’s relationship. The first act suggests an examination of those aspects of gay communities that we are often uncomfortable revealing even among ourselves, for fear of having them weaponised: the multitude of traumas, dysfunctions, and mental illnesses which plague the marginalised and oppressed gay, bi, and trans communities. How refreshing, then, for somebody to drag our demons out into the sunlight, for sunlight is the best cleanser.
However, after the 150-page mark the novel quickly loses steam, becoming a series of scenes with people sitting in various rooms discussing events 20-40 years in the past. I could have forgiven this disappointment if the conversations were relevant to the plot, and if there were serious stakes.
For example, it is made abundantly clear early on that Aimo is into BDSM, and it is implied he has coerced Emmanuel into indulging his fetishes with the leverage of accommodation. Aimo does not dangle this sword of Damocles over the main protagonist’s head, even when the latter makes no progress on the novel Aimo wants him to write. The young man gets a nice flat in a brilliant location for peanuts, but his failure to deliver has no consequences, thereby neutering the narrative.
This was especially disappointing given that the central character previously stuck with his abusive, deceptive, narcissistic boyfriend out of loneliness, desperation, and a lack of self-worth. Had his arc over the novel been a metaphorical descent into Hell though submitting to exploitation, manipulation, and violation, only to eventually stand up for himself and take control back into his own hands, I would be writing a very different review. The psychological damage of his previous relationship is mostly told, not shown, and the backstory which seemed so ominous in Act 1 is unceremoniously dropped, momentarily picked up later by the main protagonist’s friend in an argument, and then dropped again.
The main reason the plot is less than stellar is the main protagonist’s passivity. After accepting Aimo’s offer, he takes no steps to advance his own position. His budding relationship with Eino Oliveri could have been a chance for him to escape the need to ever deal with Aimo ever again, but this opportunity goes to waste. The reader could have seen the main protagonist turn the tables on Aimo and begin exploiting him and his sexual interest in young men in order to keep his home and – perhaps – to feel powerful and in control after his disastrous relationship in Berlin. These narrative possibilities are, however, squandered. Even the conclusion of the novel allows him to avoid proactivity, the conflict being solved by an accidental fall down a flight of stairs.
One positive thing about this book is in its treatment of gay men’s lives. Said men happen to be few and far between in the media I consume and am exposed to, but their suicide and murder rates are astronomical. I am heartily sick of stories about gay and bi men almost always ending in certain kinds of death, such as the (probable) murder of Jack in Brokeback Mountain and the killing of Harvey Milk in Milk; suicide (direct or otherwise) like Dean and Castiel in Supernatural or Robert in Utvandrarna (The Emigrants); or AIDS-related death as in Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar (Don’t Ever Dry Tears without Gloves). Thankfully, such things are absent from this novel, but Aimo’s erstwhile partner Toivo suffocated to death in a BDSM basement, his death stemming from his sexuality. Further comment should not be necessary at this point.
Some might complain (and indeed have complained) about the shortage of female characters in this novel and others by the author’s peers e.g. Pajtim Statovci or even Mats Strandberg. However, since homosexual men are all too frequently reduced to negative stereotypes or bit-parts in other people’s stories, many may find it refreshing to read gay men talking to gay men about gay men’s experiences, and to have them presented and taken seriously in a novel written by a gay man. However, having spent far more time among bisexual men than gay men, I noticed a certain sexual minority which was – as always – conspicuous by its absence.
This book has met with commercial success, so I may well be in the minority for not being wholly taken with it. I found little to relate to after the first third, and the main protagonist’s story did nothing to resonate with me in any way. It was nominated for the Runeberg Prize 2022, so clearly people like it, but my own guess is that this has more to do with nebulous ‛themes’ of homosexuality and BDSM than with any real literary merit.
Förlaget (Finland), 2021
Foreign rights: Elina Ahlbäck Agency
Nominated for the 2022 Nordic Council Literature Prize and the 2022 Runeberg Prize.
Kaj Korkea-aho won the Arvid Mörne competition (2007) and the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland award (2010), as well as the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland’s future prize (2012). He was shortlisted for the Finlandia Junior prize in 2017 (together with Ted Forsström for Zoo. Virala genier). Röda rummet is his fourth novel.
Brobyggarna (Det stora århundradet)
The Bridge Builders (Book 1 in The Great Century)
by Jan Guillou
reviewed by Michael O. Jones
The first of Swedish author Jan Guillou’s ten-novel opus dramatising the 1900s from the perspective of three Norwegians and their descendants is an expansive, sprawling work of historical fiction, humanised by its focus on the effects of grand events on a small cast of characters.
Following the loss of their father and uncle at sea, three fisherman’s boys from Norway’s west coast must seek employment in late 1800s Bergen. After they construct a replica of a clinker-built Viking ship, replete with ornate carvings, members of a local charitable organisation see their potential, and set them on a path to study architecture in Germany. The condition is that the boys return to Norway on graduation to help construct the Bergensbane, a railway line over the mountains from Christiania (modern Oslo) to Bergen.
Only one brother returns to Norway.
Lauritz, Oscar, and Sverre (named after the author’s own not-too-distant ancestors) are the brothers in question, blond, blue-eyed young men in a world which still hoped the future would be brighter, but whose own innocence is destroyed as Europe’s age of empires comes to a bloody end. The eldest brother Lauritz alone returns to Norway, motivated by both honour and the necessity to prove his worth to his beloved Ingeborg’s noble family in Germany. Middle brother Oscar is betrayed for money by the prostitute he believed loved him. Shamed, humiliated, and heartbroken, he reneges on his deal with the charity and flees to German East Africa, where he plays a pivotal role in constructing the railway from Dar-es-Salaam to Lake Tanganyika. Sverre, the youngest and most artistically-minded, falls in love with an English gentleman named Albert, and moves to Britain to live with him.
Railways are not of interest to most people who are not 10-year-old boys (more’s the pity), and one may well be hesitant to read such a book as this, believing it is focused on steam engines. However, those of us who are not unrepentant anoraks need not fear, as architecture, bridge building, and steam engines are not the focus of the novel. Rather, it explores class, sex, and gender in Victorian and Edwardian Europe, as well as colonialism, war, racism, intra-European xenophobia, and the looming clouds of communism, ethnic nationalism, and the fading of the old ways.
Central in all this are the stories of Lauritz and Oscar in Norway and German East Africa. Lauritz founds an architectural business based in Bergen, but his financial success and comfort are impeded when German belligerence causes anti-German sentiment to rise in Norway, and his half-German children are attacked on the streets of Bergen.
Oscar spends almost two decades in German East Africa, at first constructing a railway, but also amassing wealth through the ivory and mahogany trades. In time, the Great War spreads to Africa and Oscar is called to fight alongside Germans and Africans against the uncivilised British.
The youngest brother Sverre’s story does not feature in this novel, being only alluded to in passing, but his story runs parallel to his older brothers’ and is the focus of the second novel in the series, Dandy.
The roots of socialism, communism, imperialism, and ethnic nationalism are all presented in this novel, sowing the seeds for subsequent events later in the century. In addition, as a reader from the Anglosphere I found the depiction of the Great War from the other side a fascinating eye-opener. We are given considerable nuance in Guillou’s portrayal of several conflicts. For example, native African tribes rightfully resisted colonisation with force of arms, and suffered many losses, but their resistance on occasion led some bands to enact horrific atrocities of their own on settlers. The British Empire’s treatment of African and Indian people under its dominion causes Oscar – whose wife is African and whose son is mixed race – to view the ‛English’ as uncivilised and subhuman. The British bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa during WWI leads to horrendous casualties, but still Lauritz’s German wife Ingeborg shows deep humanity in caring for dying English soldiers on the Norwegian coast. The author allows a lot of grey space in conflicts, encouraging the reader to understand and empathise with several points of view.
The author’s own possible squeamishness about certain aspects of his characters’ lives is sometimes in evidence. Whilst book one presents us with unexpectedly graphic sex scenes between the brothers and their respective female partners, sexual behaviour between Sverre and his male partner Albert is glossed over in a very Hollywood manner.
What is also a shame is that the sheer expanse of the storytelling necessitates simplification of some aspects of the characters. Whilst Lauritz and Oscar (and later Sverre in his own novel) show agency and make their own decisions, they on occasion feel like archetypes rather than true characters. This is not in itself bad, nor does it exclude the characters being genuine personalities, as the cast of Moberg’s Utvandrarna (The Emigrants) show, but now and again it feels as though the historical events are the true focus rather than the characters.
However, these are all minor gripes which many people will likely not even notice, and they certainly did not affect my enjoyment of the novels. The positives of the series far outweigh these tiny issues, and a reader will come away from them after a journey which is both gripping and educating.
Det stora århundradet: Brobyggarna
Piratförlaget, 2011, 595 pages
Foreign rights: Piratförlaget
Jan Guillou is one of Sweden’s best-known authors, journalists, and television personalities, with a career spanning over five decades. He has published historical novels set during the Crusades, as well as novels on the war on terror, with many being adapted for television and film in Sweden. Brobyggarna begins what is perhaps his biggest project yet, a suite of ten novels detailing the twentieth century. The final novel in the suite, Slutet på historien (The End of the Story) was published in 2020, and the novels have been translated into all the major European languages excepting English, to great commercial and critical success.
by Lou Berg (Tiina Nevala and Henrik Karlsson)
reviewed by James Walker
Gryning. Falsk. is a thriller with a difference and, for a fan of Swedish ‘noir’, an exciting and welcome departure from the usual crime novel format: there are almost no bodies or detectives! Instead, we enter a thrilling world where fine art and art forgery meet organised crime. Intermingled with this is a sad love story now facing new challenges.
The Stockholm police find a painting purporting to be by the Russian artist Ivan Botkin in an unlikely place. What are a bunch of minor-league criminals doing with such a work of art? Is it real or is it a forgery?
Enter Nea Hallgren, a teacher at Stockholm’s Konstfack (University of the Arts and Crafts and Design) and an authority on the artist’s work. Roger Forsén, the sole member of the Stockholm police’s art squad, asks her to assist him by examining the painting they have discovered and advising on its authenticity and likely provenance. The French title on the reverse of the artwork, ‘Aube. Faux.’, translates into Swedish as ‘Gryning. Falsk.’ – the name of the book. The title is typically Botkin – two words: a noun and an adjective.
Nea is married to Johan, a committed but unsuccessful session musician who, it turns out, has succumbed to his old gambling addiction and has run up a huge debt which they cannot pay. When Nea returns home one day with her son, Nick, they are passed by a stranger who is fleeing from their building, and in their apartment they find a bloodied and battered Johan. This is a warning from the Balkan gangsters who he owes money to. Pay up or …
The painting that was discovered has been forged by a very skilful artist. It should never have been discovered by the police and so another copy is now urgently needed. The forger, Nadezhda, a student at Konstfack, where Nea teaches, is pressed into producing another painting. All she wants is to be left alone to make her own works of art, rather than turning out forgeries to be passed off as the work of other artists. However, Nadezhda has been pressed into forgery by another Stockholm-based underworld organisation. Pressed, as although she moved to Sweden from her native Ukraine when her mother married a Swede twelve years earlier, they had to leave behind her grandmother and severely disabled brother. They send money home to support her grandmother and provide treatment for her brother. But the criminals use the vulnerability of Nadezhda’s family still living in Ukraine to force her to continue her forgeries. They show her photographs of them going about their daily lives in rural Ukraine as proof that they can target them unless she helps.
Nea agrees to help Roger Forsén and examine the painting in some detail, to try to establish whether it is a forgery or not. But from her very first examination of it, she determines that it appears to be the real thing, as it has all the characteristics typical of Botkin (a realist painter in the manner of Edward Hopper).
At the same time, she approaches the gangsters to whom Johan owes money, to try and find a solution. They are implacable and give her a very short time in which to find the 1.3 million kronor owed to them.
The debt causes a rift with her husband, who has become passive, and who is in denial about everything and unable to function. Nea fears for her family’s safety, knowing the gang’s threats to be only too real. So she embarks upon finding a way to get the money. She finally confides in her student Nadezhda, who persuades Nea to let her help find a way to pay the debt and wipe the slate clean. However, what at first seems to be a simple enough plan spirals out of their control as it unravels before their eyes. Nevertheless, these are two women to be reckoned with!
Like all excellent thrillers, Gryning. Falsk. contains an interesting twist in the tale.
An alternative title could have been Spänning. Absolut. (Suspense. Absolutely.)
Foreign rights: Alice Stenberg, Hedlund Literary Agency
Gryning. Falsk. is Tiina Nevala and Henrik Karlsson’s second novel under the pen-name ‘Lou Berg’. Their first collaboration, in 2018, was För såna som oss (People Like Us).
The German rights to Gryning. Falsk. have been sold at auction to DuMont.
Stepping into Self-Translation
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg explores the advantages and pitfalls of translating one’s own work
After over a decade of working as a full-time writer, primarily writing in English, but also published in Swedish and Spanish, Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg has in recent years started translating her own work. Here she talks to other writer-translators and investigates the phenomenon of self-translation, its advantages and pitfalls.
Languages have always fascinated me. I grew up in rural Sweden, on the Norwegian border, and in addition to compulsory English, I did French and Spanish at school before moving abroad in my late teens. After trying my hand at several different jobs, including English teaching in Mexico, I gained a diploma in translation and interpreting, English–Spanish. Rather than finding my niche though, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t possess that useful knack of easily switching between languages. Once I was in the flow, thinking, speaking or writing in one language, I got quite flummoxed when I had to ‘jump’ to another. My stint as a translator was hardly a success – in fact, losing my most lucrative contract gave me the push I needed to launch my travel writing career back in 2006. After that I ruled myself out as a translator, convinced as I’d become that I was no good. Also, truth be told, I infinitely preferred writing original material to translating. Looking back, what I failed to take into account was that as a new translator I sorely lacked experience. Becoming a good translator, or indeed, good at any profession, takes time and practice.
Giving up translation work to focus on writing and journalism fifteen years ago was, at the time, a good decision, and I strongly felt that translation was better left to others who had better aptitude. Inevitably though, if you are multilingual, opportunities to practise switching between languages will crop up. My work as a travel and guidebook writer, focusing on Latin America and Scandinavia, meant I was often moving between English, Spanish, Swedish and Norwegian in my professional life. In my personal life, I regularly ended up interpreting between non-English speaking family and non-Swedish speaking partners and friends. Both semi-simultaneous interpreting and written translations got easier with time and effort.
A decade into my non-fiction writing career I began branching out into fiction and poetry. I was still primarily writing in English, but for poetry in particular, both Swedish and Spanish started creeping in. Suddenly I began toying with the idea of doing my own translations of my original writings. This in turn made me ponder how common it is for bi- or multilingual writers to write in more than one language and translate their own work. Is it even a good idea to do so? Or does the temptation to do a rewrite take over?
I did a few ‘trial translations’ of my poems and one or two of my short stories and found, to my surprise, that it was easier than I’d feared. I knew what I’d meant to say in the first place and felt comfortable translating a story or poem without feeling that I was jeopardising the key content. It was a very liberating experience. But I was still curious to find out more about being a writer and a translator, so I began researching and speaking to fellow writers who were doing both.
It soon became apparent that this wasn’t as unusual a phenomenon as I’d assumed, nor a new-fangled idea. As one translator reminded me, there were even plenty of famous examples, such as Samuel Beckett, who self-translated French–English, and undoubtedly many others before and after him. Much to my delight, I found that there’s a growing trend of greater interest in works in translation and consequently literary translators are getting more credit for their work. Among the writer-translators I spoke to, there were plenty of positive stories from those who have managed to carve out a niche for themselves in this field.
I spoke to people working with English, Swedish, Spanish, Bengali, Polish, and French, some with decades of experience, others just starting out. Two of the most strikingly positive stories were very different from each other. UK-based Swede Eivor Martinus is a writer, translator and playwright with many strings to her bow. Original writing and translating, either from English to Swedish or vice-versa, go hand in hand throughout Eivor’s career, and there doesn’t ever seem to have been a need to ‘choose’ which language to work in. Her first novel was written in Swedish in 1971 and followed by four children’s books, also in Swedish. She has also translated and adapted over thirty plays (mostly from Swedish into English) and written a book about one of Sweden’s most notable playwrights, August Strindberg, originally in English and subsequently translated/rewritten as a new version for a Swedish audience.
‘I can be very free with my translations,’ she says, ‘and I want to have freedom when I write.’ This is something I can truly relate to, after working with different publishers in the past. It’s also one of the key reasons behind me drastically changing genres after my more factual travel writing years. Eivor’s career is one of admirable, creative ‘genre-hopping’ from novels to children’s books, to memoir, plays, and much else besides. I find her to be a true inspiration as a writer and translator. Her latest book, I skuggan av ett helgon, (In the shadow of a saint) was published in Swedish as recently as 2021.
As I’m writing this feature, we’re still in the midst of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although this has brought about many negative changes, the pandemic has also been a time for people to stop, reflect and, like Natalia Simons, pursue their long-held dreams, in her case creating bilingual books for children. Natalia grew up bilingual in the UK with an English father and a Spanish mother. When the pandemic hit, she was first furloughed and then made redundant in July 2020. This is when Bilingo Books was born.
‘There is a great lack of bilingual books for children, both in the UK and elsewhere,’ Natalia tells me. This is a lack her new publishing company is very much looking to address. Her first book, The Spanglish Girl, was published in December 2020 and is based on her own experiences of growing up bilingual in the UK and spending time with her mother’s family in rural Aragon, Spain. Natalia already has three books under her belt – The Spanglish Girl was followed by The Mexiglish Girl and an ABC book for toddlers – and she’s now working on the fourth one, The Frenglish Boy. Each book is illustrated and includes text in both languages on the same page, making it ideal not just for bilingual children, but for early learners of a foreign language.
Natalia first perfects the English version, making sure it’s as good as it can be before starting on the translation into Spanish. For The Mexiglish Girl she used a proof-reader based in Mexico to make sure she got the Mexicanisms and cultural references right. For the new French book, she’s working with a translator for the first time – a new departure – and she’s hoping to create a number of bilingual books in other languages. There’s been plenty of positive feedback from children and parents alike, to date, in the UK and further afield.
Running parallel to the UK’s diminishing ties to its European neighbours, there is a positive trend of increasing interest in literature in translation, and more diverse voices are finally being heard. Despite many children in the UK growing up bi-, or even multilingual, I’ve rarely noticed this being emphasised or celebrated, but this is changing. Writers of mixed heritage are changing the literary landscape, making innovative use of English – something that requires a bit more from the reader, perhaps, but readers are rising to the challenge. ‘I have noticed that an increasing number of literary translations retain words from the original language, letting the reader figure out the meaning for themselves rather than translating or explaining the word or phrase,’ says Kate Griffin, Associate Programme Director at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich.
‘Interest in books in translation has certainly increased,’ Nichola Smalley, publicist at publisher And Other Stories, and translator of Swedish and Norwegian literature herself, adds. ‘Translated works have entered the mainstream and found new niches thanks to social media. I think there has always been a place for multilingualism in literature, but perhaps the languages featured are changing.’ This is something that resonates with me, as a lover of smaller, more ‘niche’ languages, and I’ve definitely noticed more people being curious about e.g. the Scandinavian languages, following the boom in Scandi and Nordic noir.
With increased interest in books in translation come greater opportunities for those who want to try their hand at self-translation, but it’s not something for everyone who speaks more than one language. Knowledge of languages alone is by no means enough to make you a good translator, and translating your own work brings a different set of challenges. ‘I, personally, wouldn’t do it,’ says Trista Selous, who translates English and French. ‘I’m not particularly interested in finding a way to think my French thoughts in English, or trying to recreate in English the places where French took me, because I’ve already been there. Also, I don’t think I would feel the same respect for the original that I do as a translator. The temptation to rewrite would be very strong.’
This last sentence certainly echoes my own fears. I think of rewriting as one of the pitfalls of self-translation, but can it perhaps also be an advantage? Although many writer-translators, myself included, often write original material in one language first, before translating, for others it works well to write more freely and even in two languages simultaneously. ‘Sometimes I start writing in one [language] and my brain just switches to the other one because, for some reason, it is more appropriate/works better,’ says Anna Blasiak, who is a writer and translator of English and Polish. ‘More and more frequently I write in my two languages, sometimes separately, sometimes in parallel and sometimes mixing both languages within one piece of writing. I am now working on a book of poetry written in that way, in both languages at the same time, as it reflects my everyday reality – switching between the languages. I don’t, in fact, think of this process as “translation” and I don’t necessarily stay very close to the first version, I simply take the ideas, images from the first version and rewrite in the second language.’
I have found myself doing the same, particularly with my own poetry, where the translations are sometimes very free, and only loosely based upon the original, hopefully still capturing the essence, while taking frequent liberties with vocabulary, for example. In other words, something I’d never dare do had I been translating somebody else’s original words. This freedom of creative expression is something many of the people I interviewed mention as one of the key reasons they embarked on the venture of translating their own work in the first place. Although the strong desire to rewrite the original completely could be seen as a pitfall, it could also be seen as a wonderful advantage of creative freedom. But then aren’t we arguably remaining writers, creating something new in other languages, rather than doing translations per se?
Anna Blasiak expresses the potential pitfalls and advantages of self-translation very succinctly. ‘The main job of any translator – finding the right balance between staying faithful to the original and finding the right ways of transposing it in another language – in the case of self-translation, is even more difficult because, as the author, by definition I am too close to the text. There is also the danger of “bad” translation, especially when a writer is not a translator. Translation is a very specific skill and not every writer is made to be a translator. An advantage would be the fact that, as an author, I know my text inside and out, so there is less of a danger of the translator “not getting it”.’
'I’ve come across numerous writers who both enjoy, and excel at, translating their own work, but many shy away from trying it. I once asked the National Book Award-winning Ha Jin, who switched from writing in Mandarin to writing in English after moving to America, why he did not translate his own work,’ says Samantha Schnee, Founding Editor of Words Without Borders. ‘He said that he tried it once and it was pure torture. He kept wanting to make revisions […] and he felt frustration that he couldn’t get on with the new novel that he had begun working on in his head.’ I hadn’t dwelled much on this dilemma, as the poetry and short stories I’ve self-translated thus far are short pieces, nothing like translating a whole novel. That feeling of accomplishment, of being ‘done with’ a longer work is exhilarating, so the thought of recommencing it in a second language afterwards must seem incredibly daunting. But who is to say that you wouldn’t fancy returning to it a year or two later?
Someone who successfully switches between writing original material and translating her own work is Shagufta Sharmeen Tania, who works in Bengali and English. ‘I’m most comfortable writing in my native Bengali,’ she comments, ‘but for the last couple of years I have decided to test the waters by writing directly in English. Every language has its unique treasures, the verbs and the phrasal verbs can work wonders in English, consolidation and use of phrasal adjectives are brilliant word-smithying tools in Bengali. Generally, I will complete an original piece in Bengali first, and only later begin to look at how the piece can be translated or rewritten in English – or rather, re-interpreted. The aim is always to retain the essence and nuance of the source material, while allowing it to have a life of its own, as an English language piece.’ She continues, ‘I believe the strongest and most magical core element or “spine” of a piece of prose will survive any transition between languages, and remain visible and vibrant – if not easily translatable, it will still be understandable. Being both tenacious, and in the habit of editing constantly, I quite stubbornly believe it is possible to write in our second languages as well.’
As a writer who primarily writes in a language that is not my first, I feel compelled to strongly agreed with Shagufta. She also speaks as someone who has seen her own work translated by others and comments that this hasn’t always been a great experience. ‘At times I found brilliant translators who translated my stories from Bengali to English with great skill and sensitivity, but they were few in number and far too busy to be able to spare the time required to translate my work in greater bulk. I’ve had some less than satisfactory experiences where I allowed others to translate my Bengali stories into English. These were actually my strongest motivation for beginning to translate my own works. These were my stories and my words, in my native language; it seemed to me that no one would be more alive to their nuances and key details than myself.’
Again, I can relate, particularly in terms of translating my own poetry, and Shagufta’s comments about the most positive aspects echo my own feelings as well. ‘Having total autonomy over every word, every line, and every phrase – that’s the most satisfying aspect of being your own translator!’ she says. ‘The downside is that you have to rely entirely on your own judgement. Collaborators offer a fresh perspective, an objective second opinion on the work – without that, it can be difficult to know if your editing decisions are the right ones.’
As for me, I’m slowly finding my feet as a translator again, after a 15-year pause with very little official translation work. It’s been fascinating to find out more about the options and possibilities, as well as connect with the community of writer-translators in the UK and worldwide. Thanks to Samantha Schnee from Words Without Borders I discovered more about the concept of ‘co-translating’, a sort of halfway house between self-translating and using a professional translator. She says, ‘I have recently started working with a Basque writer who self-translates into Spanish with the help of a co-translator. I think that makes a lot of sense for writers who have solid knowledge of a “target” language, yet don’t feel they have the same level of fluency as they do in the “source” language; to have a co-translator who is fluent in both the source and target languages can be a big help when the writer feels they have an area of weakness.’
Ultimately, whether a bi- or multilingual writer chooses to take the leap into self-translation is a very personal choice, but for those who do, the rewards, not just the challenges, can be many. I, for one, am coming full circle in my ‘translation journey’. Fifteen years after waving goodbye to translation work with a sigh of relief, I’m ready to continue my creative venture of translating my works in English into Swedish, and potentially also into Spanish. And now I’m 100% sure I’m not alone in such pursuits.
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg © 2021
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg
Anna Maria Hellberg Moberg is a UK-based Swedish writer and journalist. She's the author of 20+ works of non-fiction (writing as Anna Maria Espsäter), three children's books and two collections of short stories for adults. Her most recent book, Wayward Wanderings, is a travel memoir featuring 25 stories from around the world and over 40 of her images. She writes in English, Swedish and Spanish.
For more information see: www.amhellbergmoberg.co.uk
from The Consultant Who Wouldn’t Swim
by Mikael Bergstrand
introduced and translated by Tom Buckle
In Konsulten som inte ville bada (The consultant who wouldn’t swim), Mikael Bergstrand introduces us to Kenneth V. Andersson, a man whose working life consists primarily of travelling around southern Sweden from one struggling company to the next, planning and executing a downsizing of the workforce, one awkward meeting at a time. Kenneth congratulates himself on all aspects of his life, from his high salary and luxury apartment in Malmö, his younger girlfriend, and the lack of any children to curtail his lifestyle to his success in keeping his elderly and ailing father at arm’s length.
Kenneth’s self-assurance crumbles when his girlfriend leaves him, making him reassess the priorities that led him to this juncture in his life. He retreats to the scenic coastal village where he grew up, where he starts to dig up long-hidden secrets about his parents’ relationship and his mother’s death. He also learns about the healing power of the outdoors and starts to accumulate a new circle of friends, including a woman who teaches him the value of not taking oneself too seriously and the possibility of moving on.
This extract is taken from the beginning of the novel, on the day that Kenneth’s life takes an abrupt change.
from The Consultant Who Wouldn’t Swim
It was my dad who asked me to run down to Silverrosen and fetch my mum that Sunday in May. I’m not sure if he was worried that she’d been away for so long, but he didn’t show it. It wasn’t really anything unusual, as she often lingered on the jagged rocks and dried herself in the sun after a swim. However, even as I left the breakfast table I instinctively felt that something was wrong. In recent years, the visits to the rocks with my mum had become few and far between. As a teenager, I took advantage of the weekends to lie in at those times when she usually went for a dip.
I’d never run as fast to Silverrosen as I did on that day. My heart was racing and I had the taste of blood in my mouth.
When I still couldn’t see her upon reaching the murky waters, the fear really gripped me. I continued down the path with the hope of catching sight of her when I passed a letchberry bush that partially obscured my view. I reached the rock formation out of breath and with legs shaking from the exertion, but she wasn’t there. I stumbled onwards over the uneven stone slabs. Her thick, navy-blue dressing gown lay furthest out on the rocks, carefully folded alongside her black clogs with little white geese on them. I looked out in panic at the gently billowing sea but couldn’t see my mum anywhere. She was gone. With all my might I shouted her name, but my desperate cries just passed over the waves and disappeared.
‘This isn’t working anymore. We need to talk.’
I met her serious and slightly sad look with a forced smile, reached out for the wine glass on the coffee table in front of the TV and heard myself say ‘OK’ in an unconcerned voice.
It was an unpleasant turn of events on a Friday that had thus far proceeded as well as anyone could reasonably expect of a rainy winter’s day in Malmö.
My name is Kenneth V. Andersson. The ‘V’ stands for Valdemar. I don’t use it so often. Mostly in business situations, to confer an air of distinction on my otherwise rather ordinary name. Like when you receive a letter from the postcode lottery addressed to you personally on gilt-edged paper.
On that Friday in December, I was woken early by the rain beating hard on the skylight above the bed. We lived in a luxurious penthouse that, apart from the bedroom, bathroom with an inset jacuzzi and a small spare room for rare overnight guests, comprised a single enormous space in Gamla Väster in Malmö. This was the old marine quarter, which had been transformed into the city’s most sought-after district. The view stretched as far as the horizon, with unbroken vistas of the sky in its various forms, depending on the weather, wind and time of day. There was also a large balcony overlooking the courtyard, from which you could look out over the rooftops and see the seagulls screeching and scrapping like a gang of drunken football hooligans.
My partner Cathrine, who was still snoring gently and sweetly in bed when I got up to sort out breakfast, sometimes said that she longed for a typical view where she could see the street below and the cars and people passing by, to help her get her bearings. I felt that what she really missed was being able to spy on the neighbours, although I never said so.
I actually liked the view of the sky from the windows. The sky conveys much more than a busy street. It has its own mysteries and possibilities, both in the daytime and at night. I often used it as a metaphor when talking to employees facing major changes at work or even the sack. I’d got it from a self-help book.
‘Think about the opportunities it can offer you,’ I said. ‘Think how many undiscovered planets there are in the heavens. So many lodestars.’
From time to time, someone would snort upon hearing this, but they would have snorted regardless of what I had said. There’s a certain type of person who snorts far too much. Once they get going they can sound a little like an engine that refuses to start. They stand or sometimes sit there with their arms crossed and a suspicious or hostile look on their face. The signs are not always so obvious, but I pick them up. The tone of voice is an octave too high and the smile a little forced.
I was aware that these snorts were a way of overcoming their fear. Some people were of course scared of me. Just the word consultant could make the knees of employees at a company with a shrinking profit margin shake like a souped-up vibrator. Therefore, I always had to appear sympathetic. And show that I had something to offer that could provide a little encouragement. It is inadvisable to bring up strained metaphors about stars in the sky unless you have first distributed a little sweetener in the form of a severance package or a contribution to ongoing professional development.
‘The coffee’s ready, darling,’ I shouted to Cathrine as I put a couple of slices of sourdough bread in the toaster. I’d already placed butter, avocado, tomato and fresh apple juice on the oval table in the open kitchen. The sweet smell of breakfast wafted through the room. […]
I breathed a little sigh of relief once she’d gone. I usually did. It wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of her, but rather that I liked being on my own. I really enjoyed my own company and didn’t at all mind not having colleagues at work. As a management and efficiency consultant – I preferred not to use the word rationalisation – I lived a free and independent life. My clients were primarily in southern Sweden and consisted of small and medium-sized companies that were getting the lay of the land in order to optimise their organisation. In other words, they wanted to get rid of the dead wood. You wouldn’t believe how many unproductive people there are out there. It’s just a matter of carefully seeking them out, matching them to some appropriate parameters and then capturing them in neat lists in Excel. It’s all confidential, of course. Nothing that’s used openly, but is nonetheless there as absolute truth. This may sound a bit arbitrary and inhumane, but during my years in the profession I’ve learned that clients love data and tables that support their hypothesis. Especially when they’re presented in an Excel file.
When I wasn’t at home, which also acted as my office, I spent my workdays on the road between different jobs in my latest model Audi A8. I was fully aware that, for some left-wing fanatics, a consultant who was meant to efficiently conjure away part of the workforce but drove a luxury car would be too much to take, but some things are non-negotiable. Like driving the latest model Audi A8. Comfort. Status. Safety. Considering that the risk of being seriously injured in a traffic accident is 843 times higher than being caught in the crossfire from gang warfare in Malmö. Recession is an efficiency consultant’s best friend, and the latest model Audi A8 is the result of that friendship.
On that rainy Friday I had just a single meeting booked in, at Swed Mirror Ltd. in Svedala, 15 miles or so outside of Malmö. Svedala is a relatively well-off nothing of a place where the town centre consists of an ugly fountain and a high street with some fairly run-of-the-mill shops. Its proximity to Malmö and the good transport links there maintain the town’s population level, but it has lost its previous status as a magnet for industry. Its residents live and sleep and love and hate and attend evening classes and walk their dogs and enjoy the pleasant surroundings of rolling fields and tender beech trees, but they generally work elsewhere.
Swed Mirror was long an exception. As the name implied, the company manufactured mirrors, and the factory and office lay a little outside of town in a downtrodden industrial estate. Up to a few years ago, business had been going reasonably well, but the weakening of the construction industry had led to such a drop in the domestic demand for quality mirrors and mirrors for sliding cupboard doors that some severe belt-tightening was required. My task was to tighten that belt a couple of notches, which involved squeezing out thirty or so factory workers and ten employees on the administrative side of the business. […]
Holding a plastic cup in one hand and my efficiency folder in the other, I knocked on the door of the head of HR, Johan Wirén, and was quickly invited in.
‘Already here? Welcome! Got yourself a coffee, yeah? Terrible weather today. Should be better over the weekend. Shall we make sure we’re on the same page? Before the meeting?’
It could be considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world that Johan Wirén had been promoted to head of HR from his role in charge of transportation and also avoided ending up on the Excel list of who would be optimised away from Swed Mirror. He probably had something on the boss of the company, as I’d never encountered such an incompetent and awkward individual in a leadership role. Wirén expressed himself in short staccato sentences and blushed deeply every time he met some kind of opposition or generally felt that he was making a fool of himself, which was more often than not. Even though he was only 38 years old, he dressed like a rather slim pensioner in chequered or striped shirts, regular-fit chinos that were held above his thin hips by a tightly drawn belt and black shoes that looked like they were from the army surplus store. It was possible that he was following a new fashion trend of which I wasn’t yet aware, but nonetheless the outfit was an aesthetic meltdown.
‘Harriet Brogren is a loyal long-termer here. Tread softly. With her,’ he said.
I’d put the solution I had found for the lady in question into an imposing document. Sixty-two years old and with more than 30 years at Swed Mirror as a valued secretary, she was now part of the furniture. Even so, I’d settled on my plan for her and explained to Johan Wirén how I intended the conversation to proceed.
‘Excellent. We’ve done. A good job,’ he said with a smile.
I noted with satisfaction that he considered himself party to the decision concerning Harriet’s termination, even though his only input had been to agree to everything I’d suggested. The most important thing wasn’t that the clients were participants in the process, rather that they believed they were.
When we arrived, Harriet Brogren was already seated in the meeting room we had booked. She was clasping her hands together so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. In contrast to Wirén, she was very well dressed in a chic red dress and had her hair up in a bun that was definitely more elegant than frumpish. She had a vague scent of perfume that worried me. I have a range of allergies, including to perfume, and can only be in the same room as a heavily perfumed woman for around ten minutes. I then have to leave to clean out my lungs. However, Harriet’s perfume was quite discreet, so I worked out that I’d probably be able to stand it for up to half an hour without using my inhaler. This last point was vital. Under no circumstances could I display any weakness to Harriet. Although she tried to smile and appear relaxed, her fear and discomfort were written all over her face. Her sweaty handshake reinforced that impression. I looked at her with a gentle smile on my face and said something about the bad weather. Harriet nodded and mumbled, and, after softening her up with a few more platitudes that made her slightly more at ease, I decided to go on the attack.
‘I’ve heard only good things about you from everyone I’ve spoken to at this company, and if it wasn’t for the weak economy Swed Mirror would be not just happy but really quite keen to keep you in your position all the way through to retirement.’
‘It’s true. Really,’ said the head of HR, who had already begun to blush.
‘But we’ve put together a solution for you that’s very generous and gives you the possibility right now of starting to enjoy a more peaceful way of life while nonetheless feeling financially secure,’ I said.
‘Will I be working part-time?’ asked Harriet in a voice that exuded cautious optimism.
I gave her a friendly smile and tilted my head slightly. I’d learned in a book about leadership that this was better than shaking your head, although to be honest that book was one of the most insubstantial that I’d read in the genre.
‘According to this very generous offer, you’ll conclude your employment, winding down slowly within a couple of months.’
I glanced over at Johan Wirén. He nodded and smiled, as red as a tomato. Harriet’s cheeks had also begun to redden.
‘A-a-am I being fired?’ she stuttered.
‘Absolutely not! Before we’re done today we will have reached an agreement. Swed Mirror wants nothing but the best for you, Harriet, and to give you more time with your family.’
That part about ‘reaching an agreement’ was high up on my list. The company hadn’t wanted to give any advance notice about the offers that would be made and already had the fairly easily persuaded head of the local union on board. Everything was prepared for a settlement to be reached. Now it was just about convincing this woman.
‘What does the offer look like, then?’ asked Harriet while replacing a strand of hair that had worked itself loose.
‘It’s extremely favourable and generous to you, and is far beyond what is required of the company. But good workers like you should be duly recompensed. Full pay for six months and an extra bonus this Christmas.’
I smiled warmly and placed my hand gently on Harriet’s shoulder. She flinched a little, which surprised me. I thought I’d won her over.
‘If Jeppson were here now he’d roll over in his grave,’ she mumbled and glared, offended, first at me and then at the head of HR, who even managed to smile back, albeit somewhat apologetically.
Jeppson was the founder of Swed Mirror, Anton Jeppson, who had hired Harriet Brogren long ago. I’d come to learn that even mentioning him at the company was almost like invoking the gods. It was now clear that this wasn’t going to be as simple and painless as I’d first thought. It was time to change tactics.
‘I’ve heard that your husband has just retired. Wouldn’t it be great to finally get to spend more time with him? Johan told me that you two play golf at Bokskogens Golf Club. That’s got to be one of Sweden’s most beautiful courses, don’t you think?’
The injured look on Harriet’s face suddenly vanished. She stared vacantly straight ahead, as if she’d realised that the race had already been run and that the outcome of this conversation had been decided even before it had begun. Tears welled up in her eyes, which I noted with a certain satisfaction. Not because I get off on people crying, not at all, but because a distraught person is easier to deal with than an angry one. However, I was left almost at a loss for words when she next spoke.
‘Lars, my husband, has got cancer. Bone cancer. I’m going to lose him. The doctors give him a year at most.’
When faced with these kinds of dramatic twists, you have to trust your own intuition. I knew that the head of HR wouldn’t contribute anything of value and quickly decided to present the façade of deep compassion that I’d mastered.
‘That’s awful. I’m so sorry,’ I said with a sympathetic voice and carefully placed my hand back on Harriet’s shoulder.
This time she allowed it to remain. Good. I let her cry a little. Some 30 seconds later, I continued.
‘I had no idea, Harriet, and I’m terribly sorry. Of course you’ll want to be with Lars as much as possible,’ I said and passed her a tissue from a box that had been strategically placed on the round table together with the untouched glasses of sparkling water.
Harriet took the tissue, dried her tears and carefully blew her nose. I gently patted her shoulder a couple of times before removing my hand. She smiled at me almost gratefully and briefly nodded, while Johan Wirén mumbled something about a tragedy.
‘Maybe you know that you have the right to go on paid leave for a considerable time in order to care for a loved one at home,’ I said.
Harriet looked at me with tear-filled eyes.
‘Let’s try and resolve this in the best possible way for you and Lars. Johan will help you get in touch with the social insurance people, won’t you?’ I said and looked meaningfully at the bewildered head of HR.
‘Sure. Of course. I will,’ he said after I pointedly raised my eyebrows at him.
I suddenly realized the smell of Harriet’s perfume had grown stronger and more of an irritant, probably because her outburst had raised her body temperature and released more pheromones and esters into the air. It’s pure chemistry when alcohol, hydrolysed in the presence of water and heat, reacts with an acid. I’d read it on Wikipedia. It’s that chemical reaction that causes me trouble. I was forced to wind up the conversation as quickly and smoothly as possible, without appearing insensitive.
‘The company will fulfil all of its responsibilities to you,’ I said and coughed lightly with my hand over my mouth. ‘If you sign this agreement today, the company will make sure that the paid time off for which you are eligible will not in any way affect the six months stipulated in the redundancy agreement. This will give you all the time you need to be with Lars. And if you need professional support, we can arrange a therapist. Johan is also always available, as a friendly ear and source of support.’
This latter offer would be more of a burden than a benefit, but I was keen to involve the head of HR so that he’d feel like an active participant. I knew it would be good for my reference.
Harriet Brogren signed the agreement at about the same time as I started to tear up due to her perfume. It gave the impression that I was really emotionally involved, which was ideal. Sympathetic but not weak.
Konsulten som inte ville bada
Rights: Maria Enberg, Enberg Agency
We are grateful to Enberg Agency for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Konsulten som inte ville bada.
Mikael Bergstrand is a journalist and author from Malmö. His popular feelgood novels have sold over 850,000 copies and been translated into 12 languages. His previous novels Dimma över Darjeeling (Darjeeling mist) and Delhis vackraste händer (Delhi's Most Beautiful Hands) were reviewed in SBR 2013:2 and SBR 2012:1 respectively.
Tom Buckle is a Swedish translator and science editor. After long periods in Sweden, Japan and Spain, he now resides in Wales.
Inne i spegelsalen
(In the Hall of Mirrors)
by Liv Strömquist
reviewed by B.J. Epstein
Liv Strömquist is one of Sweden’s premier graphic novelists. Her works, which always combine philosophy, history, art, sociology, modern culture, and more, are hard to categorise. They aren’t fiction and they aren’t straightforward non-fiction; rather, they take on a topic – ranging from capitalism to female genitals – and explore it from many angles, in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.
Strömquist’s latest book, Inne i spegelsalen (In the Hall of Mirrors), does just that once again, this time focusing on our outer shells. Using historical and literary examples as well as modern queens of social media, Strömquist explores where the focus on female beauty came from (an unsurprising hint: it has something to do with women as commodities) and how this relates to women as both subjects and objects in modern society.
Strömquist goes on to subtly show how badly or ridiculously people can behave in the quest for beauty, whether they are trying to gain or retain their own physical beauty or that of someone else, or perhaps even in an artwork. While some exercise religiously, undergo plastic surgery, keep out of the sun, allow no one to look at them past a certain age, steal artworks, or compete with others about who has the smallest waist, they seem to forget that there’s much more to life than appearances. Beauty, Strömquist points out, is beautiful in part because it is transient; trying to hold on to it not only wastes time and energy, but also defeats the actual meaning of beauty.
As we read, we are forced to look through the mirror Strömquist holds up to us, and we find that this self-obsession is really not a good look. Liv Strömquist confronts us, helping us to see that by always looking in the mirror, we’re missing out on the true beauty of life.
Inne i spegelsalen
Norstedts, 2021, 144 pages
Foreign rights: Sara Dobareh, Norstedts
Liv Strömquist’s The Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva versus the Patriarchy appeared in Melissa Bowers’ translation at Fantagraphics Books in 2018. Bowers’ translation of The Reddest Rose: Romantic Love from the Ancient Greeks to Reality TV is due out in September 2022.
Strömquist’s works have been translated into languages including French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch.
En ensam plats
(A Lonely Place)
by Kristina Sandberg
reviewed by B.J. Epstein
En ensam plats (A Lonely Place) is the eighth book by Kristina Sandberg, but the first memoir. In it, Sandberg explores the period when she had breast cancer; during this time, all she wanted was to not ’die away from her children’, and yet she found that few people understood this, or had true empathy for what it means to be ill.
Kristina Sandberg is best known for her trilogy of books about a housewife named Maj. Through the lens of Maj and her life, Sandberg depicts the shifting Swedish perceptions of women, families and society. These books, in short, tell the story of 20th-century Sweden, and they struck a chord with readers there and elsewhere. Sandberg won the prestigious August Prize for the trilogy and her work has been translated to many languages, though not yet English.
Riding high on this success, Sandberg found herself travelling virtually non-stop around Sweden and abroad. She read from her books, taught creative writing classes, sat on panels, gave lectures, met fans, and wrote reviews and other articles for newspapers. She knew she had to take a break, but couldn’t quite stop. She had so much to do, after all.
Then, however, she was forced to call a halt. Shortly before a planned work trip to England, Kristina Sandberg was told that her father had died suddenly. While she and her sister were thrown into the task of cleaning out the family home – made harder by hoarding habits that had filled the house up – and dealing with their grief, Sandberg discovered a lump in her breast. She had been ignoring physical pain, but now she could ignore it no longer. She had cancer and needed chemotherapy.
As a writer, Sandberg obviously makes her living through communicating. And yet, she quickly discovered that communication proves challenging when someone becomes ill. Many people do not want to discuss the illness, perhaps because they can’t face their own mortality, and others do not know what to say and prefer to stick to safer subjects. Still others offer platitudes, assuring the ill person that all will be well or that they knew someone else who went through the same thing and it turned out fine. Sandberg experienced how few friends were willing to listen to how she was feeling and also that she herself couldn’t always find the right words, the words that could connect to and reach others. Sandberg’s biggest fear was to die, not necessarily out of concern for herself, but because of her two young daughters, who she knew needed her. Unable to discuss all the physical and emotional implications of what she was going through, Sandberg understood that illness is one of the loneliest experiences a person can undergo.
Amid all this, Sandberg’s husband’s mother began making it clear how much she disapproved of Sandberg. She felt her son should have been the primary earner and the more successful writer, and she implied that her daughter-in-law was not doing enough for him – even though Sandberg was, of course, gravely ill. Sandberg felt the responsibility of keeping her family together and continuing to be kind, despite having to prioritise her own health. Her mother-in-law then died during the Covid pandemic, which, while it liberated the family, also added to the tough feelings they were left trying to handle.
En ensam plats is based on Sandberg’s journals from the lonely period of her illness. This moving, difficult memoir is written in Sandberg’s trademark poetic style, and it is unsparing in its depiction of an important event in her life. All of us have either been ill ourselves or have friends or relatives who have been, and we can all relate to the way Sandberg portrays both the illness and her treatment by others. En ensam plats makes us want to do better for the people around us, and it also forces us to consider what makes us human, namely connections.
En ensam plats
Foreign rights: Linda Altrov Berg, Norstedts Agency
Att föda ett barn (Giving Birth) by Kristina Sandberg was reviewed by Deborah Bragan-Turner in SBR 2015:2.
Kristina Sandberg is a psychologist and author. She made her literary debut in 1997 and is regarded as one of the most important contemporary Swedish writers. In 2014 she was awarded the prestigious August Prize for fiction, for Liv till varje pris (Life at Any Cost).
Hemligheten i Helmersbruk
(The Mystery of Helmersbruk Manor)
by Eva Frantz
illustrated by Elin Sandström
reviewed by Annie Prime
Twelve-year-old Flora Winter and her mother travel to the small seaside town of Helmersbruk in December so that her mother can focus on writing her next book. Flora’s father, who loved Christmas, died a year or so ago, and her well-meaning but absent-minded mother is too busy writing to remember to cook dinner every day, let alone put up Christmas decorations. Alone in a strange place with no Christmas cheer, Flora misses her father more than ever.
Their temporary residence is the porter’s house on the grounds of a vast manor. Their host is a stern but kind old man who lives in the manor’s wash house and keeps himself to himself. Clever Flora zips through her schoolwork and reading, and consequently has a lot of time on her hands. Though she has no one to play with or talk to, she has no friends back home either, and so is used to solitude and flights of fancy. She begins to explore the grounds.
What she finds is straight out of a fairy tale: a grand, dilapidated old mansion with extensive gardens – and even a labyrinth! There is no way into the manor house, which only intrigues Flora more. Bewitched by the manor’s splendour, her imagination is set into motion. But is it just her imagination? Strange phenomena begin to occur and the lines between imagination and reality blur: Flora hears voices whispering about her, questioning her identity, alluding to hidden treasure; she has visions of an elusive snow-white squirrel; she finds figurines in different places that all seem to be part of the same nativity scene…
After Flora has a vivid dream of entering the mansion and walking around, she finds that the door magically opens for her, as though the building has a will of its own. The interior is just as she dreamed it would be. Has she been here before?
She meets a young boy in the grounds one day, who dresses and speaks in a very old-fashioned way, but later she is told that no one ever enters the grounds because there is no way in. But if there is no way in, how does she have access? And who is this boy?
As Flora explores the mysteries of Helmersbruk Manor, the reader is given insights into its history through diary entries from another 12-year-old girl long ago. She was the groundskeeper’s daughter who went on to fall in love with Robert von Hiems, son and heir of the manor. Her diary reveals a terrible tragedy that befell the von Hiems family: they all died in a car crash, leaving no heir.
As Flora’s bravery and independence grow, so too does her affection for the manor house and grounds. So when she learns of a plan to tear it down to build a hotel, she is distraught. How can she solve the mystery of Helmersbruk Manor and save it from demolition?
Without giving away the details, I can reassure you that the touching conclusion sees Flora solve the mystery, reconnect with the memory of her father, and find a home and community in Helmersbruk.
Author Eva Frantz is a successful writer of crime and mystery for adults, but her recent forays into children’s literature have proven that she is a master story-teller for all ages. Like Hallonbacken (The Mystery of Raspberry Hill – winner of the Runeberg Junior Prize 2019 and due for publication in the UK by Pushkin Press) and Nattens Drottning (Queen of the Night – as yet untranslated), this book continues with her strong themes of lonely, imaginative children finding adventure in magnificent haunted buildings. Her books always contain dark notes but strike a bittersweet balance, ultimately ending in joy.
What is particularly heart-warming in this instance is the Christmas theme. The story is told in 24 chapters, each just the right length to be read aloud before bedtime, beginning with a beautiful illustration by Elin Sandström, and ending in a suitable cliffhanger. The idea is to read one chapter a day, in ‘real time’ with the story, until the happy conclusion on Christmas Eve – a concept I find utterly charming. However, it is such an enjoyable read that it might be difficult to ration it.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this middle-grade mystery novel, but the 12-year-old girl in me is thoroughly delighted and satisfied.
Hemligheten i Helmersbruk
Schildts & Söderströms, Finland, 2021, 266 pages
Foreign rights: Urpu Strellman, Helsinki Literary Agency
För han var redan dö (Out of the Game) by Eva Frantz was reviewed by Catherine Venner in SBR 2021:1.
Eva Frantz works as a journalist at the Finnish national broadcasting company. She is a successful writer of crime and mystery for adults, including the popular Anna Glad series. Her Runeberg Prize-winning Hallonbacken (The Mystery of Raspberry Hill), her first book for middle grade readers, is to be published in the UK by Pushkin Press.
Skugga och svalka
(Shade and Breeze)
by Quynh Tran
reviewed by Darcy Hurford
‘[H]ow can I put it, well, Westerners, one thing that separates us from them is that they often like things to be superficial and clear… I mean objects and rooms…Yes, rooms. While we prefer depth and darkness.’ So says Mr Tèo, a family friend of the narrator in Skugga och svalka, fairly early on in the narrative. He puts his finger on one of the novel’s driving themes: ambiguity, the need for things not to be too black and white, not too clear-cut. This is what makes it special, yet rather hard to pin down in a review.
Most of the novel revolves around its three main characters: Hieu, the narrator’s older brother, into girls but less into school; Má, who works in a laundry but also employs her business acumen; and the narrator, excellent at school, good at writing and football, and the eye through which the events in Skugga och svalka are registered. They live in a small town on the west coast of Finland.
Many novels depict childhood, but this one is interesting for the unusual way it does so. It is presented as a series of tableaux. Chapters are short, and have headings reminiscent of the intertitles in a silent film: Fluttering Heart, The Development Process, Laura, Unbelievably Bad. Some are at odds with the content; Archipelago and Outdoor Life, for instance, describes a trip to the town swimming pool at the height of summer when everyone else is out of town. Like a dictaphone, the narrator registers dialogue and repeats or possibly changes it, but doesn’t really see what’s going on inside the older people around him. The phrasing and vocabulary are those of an adult. Is this an adult narrating past events or a child repeating things he’s heard? The narrator is interested in a photo of Má, Hieu and two family friends in the forest on a berry picking trip, writing about it at some length – although he wasn’t with them. Overall, the effect is like watching a slide show presented by a solemnly precocious primary school child.
Photography crops up again and again in Skugga och svalka. Time-wise, the story seems to be set in the 1990s, pre-internet, and so photographs are still physical objects. When Hieu is interested in a girl for the first time, the narrator keeps looking through a heap of photos of a school event to see if he can find her in the pictures. Má buys a camera, and takes up photography, eventually taking some pictures of horses for the local paper. Not only does the photo developing shop Foto Elite get a chapter title, but it also stars in The Development Process, in which Má and the narrator go to pick up some photos and are told at some length how they are developed. The chapter ends with a reference to a photo of Hieu’s ex Laura that has been left on the bathroom shelf. Suspended in time by the camera, Laura is about to wake up. A meditation on the effects of capturing people on celluloid, Skugga och svalka seems to hark back to a modern literary classic, Henry Parland’s To Pieces (Sönder), similarly obsessed with photography, which was originally published in 1932 (an English translation by Dinah Cannell appeared at Norvik Press in 2011).
Talking of literary references, Mr Tėo has probably been reading In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s short (and highly readable) essay on the aesthetics of everything from electrical wires to clothes. ‘We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates... Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.’
Light, shadow. Ambiguity, clarity. Skugga och svalka is an absorbing novel with both shadows and beauty.
Skugga och svalka
Norstedts, 2021, Förlaget, 2021
Foreign rights: Norstedts Agency
Winner of Svenska YLE’s Literature Prize, 2021; the Runeberg Prize, 2021 (Finland); and nominated for the Katapult Prize and Borås Tidningen’s Debutant Prize (Sweden).
Quynh Tran grew up in Ostrobothnia in Western Finland and is a graduate of the acclaimed Biskops Arnö Writing School in Sweden. He now lives in Malmö, where he works as a psychologist.