by Ola Larsmo
reviewed by Lo Nathamundi
Översten (The Colonel) is a difficult book, 595 pages long and set entirely in the 1800s. It is historical fiction, describing in astonishing detail the tragic life of Knut Oscar Broady, a man most people have probably never heard of.
Reading it is like stepping into another world. There are no multiple timelines, no connections to the present, no long-winded interpretations, no present-day relatives of the main character explaining the story in modern parlance or in terms of its modern-day relevance. You simply dive into the 1800s and live there for the duration of the novel. I can’t remember any modern metaphors being used to describe the inventions or technologies of the period. One gets the impression that the novel itself could almost have been written in 1885, such is the thoroughness of immersion in that time and world that Ola Larsmo has managed to conjure up.
Översten actually came out in 2020, although there is almost nothing inside the covers of the book to suggest that. It was released by Kaunitz-Olsson, a new publishing house set up in 2019. There are fewer than five pages of afterword and acknowledgments at the very back of the book to suggest any connection to the modern era. An author’s dedication and a Leonard Cohen quote at the beginning, and that’s it. The rest takes place entirely in the 1800s. It also feels as though it was written in the nineteenth century, not by a modern chronicler looking back.
The book reads very much like a journal, like a documentary, like a historical film. One feels as though one is visiting a historical museum. Despite the many and varied dramatic incidents, plot twists and strange moments of fate, the emotional tone is so restrained as to leave one feeling as though one has witnessed history. There is little to no exaggerated storytelling, bawdy revelry, emotional enmeshment, or lavish embellishment. It is seemingly as plain and realistic as possible. The word choices, the descriptions, all are stark and plainly written. Whether this is simply the author’s style, or intended to reflect the period, or both, it is difficult to say.
Without ever planning to, the main character, who wanted to study theology and be a pastor, ends up fighting in the American Civil War. In the midst of the battlefield and all the tragedies that play themselves out there, Broady views most of what happens through the spiritual lens of a battle between right and wrong and good and evil. Many churches at the time were as divided as the nation was politically, some being adamantly pro-slavery, while others were strongly abolitionist. Once the war and Broady’s part in it is over, he ends up returning to Sweden (again, without ever having planned to do so) and finally becomes a preacher for twenty years.
I had the good fortune to speak with author Ola Larsmo via video chat for about an hour, and I was amazed at how intriguing a person he is, unbelievably intelligent and humble and well-read. I was a bit surprised, to be honest, at how light-hearted he was in the interview. I had been expecting someone much more cynical and gloomy and brooding. He was kind and sweet and jovial and laughing, which rather puzzled me.
It’s actually not the first time I’ve had such a surprising encounter in person with a Swedish author. I’ve met Håkan Nesser before, and was also surprised at how seemingly light and jovial a person he is. After having read his books, filled with cunning and brooding and nastiness, I was amused to find Håkan himself soaking up the sun, petting his dog, going camping, enjoying a leisurely time at a restaurant, laughing, nibbling a cookie. I had expected someone much more sinister. Perhaps both authors have found a way to explore so much tragedy and death and sinister awful things in the literary realm that they are much lighter and happier and freer in their life outside of their literary works.
Which brings me back to Ola Larsmo’s recounting of the life of Knut Oscar Broady. Perhaps the purpose of the book is to bring some sense of humble appreciation for the modern world in which we live, which seems so different from that of Broady in the novel. In the book, babies and mothers are dying, soldiers in the war are having their heads blown off their shoulders. It is literally one death and tragedy after another for almost 600 pages. Never sensationalised, just plainly presented as fact.
Ola seemed to hint that one of his aims was to document the many varieties of immigrant experiences that people have had in coming to the United States. That there are as many possible immigrant experiences as there are immigrants, literally millions. That not every Swedish-American immigrant’s life was similar to those depicted in the works of Vilhelm Moberg. In that he has definitely succeeded. He has poured an unbelievable amount of work into recreating Knut Broady’s life. It is a portrait that will leave any reader with the bravery and stamina to make it through this sprawling book wondering how it all relates to the modern era and our own modern lives for a very long time.
If you are keenly interested in American Civil War history, Swedish-American immigrant experiences, or the history of Christian movements in relation to racism and slavery, you might find this book an interesting read. Beyond those specific interests, though, I’m not sure how much appeal it will have to a general readership.
Ola Larsmo has been fortunate enough to have one of his earlier novels, Swede Hollow, translated into English by none other than Tiina Nunnally. Both the Swedish original and the English translation have met with considerable success. If this book also finds a capable translator, we may find out just how much interest and readership there is for a book like Översten in English.
Foreign rights: Martin Kaunitz, Kaunitz-Olsson.
Ola Larsmo is a writer, literary critic and culture journalist. He made his literary debut in the 1980s and has since published a number of novels and essays. His book Swede Hollow was reviewed in SBR 2016:2, and Jag vill inte tjäna (I Do Not Wish to Serve) was reviewed in SBR 2009:2.