from A Third World
by Martin Björklind
introduced and translated by Neil Betteridge
Tage, a former hedonist, university dropout and womaniser, is a suicidal wreck following a series of devastating personal betrayals. Quite by chance he becomes embroiled with a collection of misfits calling themselves The Group. Evert, its philosophically inclined leader, is able to detect projections, shadows from a world beyond dreams that seem to presage a series of brutal murders that have been rocking the city. As Tage gets dragged, reluctantly, into their circle, he finds that there is more to reality than he once thought. Much more. Machinating from a realm more metaphysical than physical is a sinister entity, personified by a mysterious cadre called ‘The Mates’, and it is suicidal. With disaster looming, Tage and The Group find themselves in a race against time.
En tredje värld (A Thirld World) is a murder mystery, a thrilling, fast-paced urban romp and a philosophical reflection on the nature of reality, all rolled into one. A ‘very well-written, exciting, screwy, philosophical, funny’ story by an author ‘who at times reaches truths about what it means to be human that makes one shudder and look inward at one’s own experiences’. (Quotes taken from reviews on Bokus.com.)
The following is an extract from A Third World, book 3: Chains, chapters 9 and 10.
from A Third World
Evert retrieved, with some effort, a large, hefty volume that lay hidden behind the boxes. It was a good foot and a half in length, with black straps binding its green leather covers and steel guards pressed into its corners. The front panel was aesthetically worn, the scratches and abrasions of frequent use covering the thick leather of the ancient tome like a veil. It thudded softly under its own weight as Evert lay it on the living room table. He showed Tage how to unfasten and refasten the bindings. Tage noticed that sheets of varying sizes had been inserted into its pages, causing the swelling content between the covers to protrude irregularly here and there. Evert turned grave eyes to Tage.
‘Did you see where I took this from?’
Tage gave a confirming nod of his head towards the boxes labelled 1986. Evert continued.
‘As you know, disasters can be averted by following shadows and jabbering nonsense at the threat. As I know you’re frightened of doing. But remember, there’s a great secret behind Nonsense. Nonsense is the mother of all Meaning, just as Nothing is the father of Something.’
‘So if we find what it is that The Mates want to destroy, we can snatch it from their clutches with something that means Nothing? A bit like reformatting a hard disk?’
‘I’d say that’s a pretty good analogy, yes.’ Evert started to cough violently and walked into the kitchen to blow his nose.
‘But,’ he said on his return, ‘there’s another way, and a more decisive way at that, to destroy what comes after the shadows. That which has manifested itself as what we call The Mates.’
‘The ones who cast shadows after themselves.’
‘Right. Or rather, before.’
Tage understood, he imagined, and repeated the words.
‘The ones who cast shadows before themselves.’
‘Yes, as I said. And this more decisive way is a method I call the Lifeline.’
Evert ran a hand gently over the centuries-old volume.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is the Lifeline. It may only be used in an extreme emergency as an absolute last resort.’
‘What is it?’
‘We won’t be using it quite yet. I just wanted you to know of its existence. If you ever have to use it, don’t be put off by its arcaneness. You’re to read it, but you’re not to read it in order to understand it.’
‘I think I understand,’ Tage teased. Evert took no notice of him.
They went out into the hallway and Tage bent down to put on his shoes. When he straightened up again, Evert placed two keys in his hand.
‘What are these?’
‘They’re to my flat.’
Tage was taken by complete and utter surprise.
Evert shrugged and looked a little absently into Tage’s eyes.
‘Those are the only spare keys I have,’ he said with a cough, ‘and it’d be good if someone else had them. In case I lock myself out.’
The two objects lying in Tage’s hand glistened enigmatically at him. He realised that Evert had a purpose that he was keeping to himself. Tage felt deeply honoured, which he also expressed. He didn’t ask any more questions, only said:
‘When this is over, when we’ve killed these shadow-casters or whatever it is we’re going to do, you’ll take a nice long holiday, my treat. And I promise to take in your post and water the flowers.’ He swung the keys in the air between his thumb and index finger, and then popped them into his pocket.
Evert smiled. He sneezed and suffered another coughing fit. He blew his nose.
‘You’re on. I’d love to go to the Highlands of northern Britain. I’ve always dreamed of seeing them.’
‘It’s a deal,’ said Tage and shook Evert’s hand. ‘Take my word for it. I’m going to put you on the first flight to Scotland. But you’d best get rid of that cold of yours first.’
‘Our mission isn’t quite over yet, so I daresay I’ll have got over it by then.’
Anna Lisa stood on Mälartorget staking out the metro station. Tage saw her from a distance as he walked towards the Old Town. It was ten to seven on the morning of Midsummer Eve, Friday 23 June. She beckoned him to follow her with a nod of her head, and they set off for the bridge over to the island of Riddarholmen. Here and there, Stockholmers not on holiday seemed to be on their way to work, as early-rising tourists travelled towards some mundane destination ahead of the day’s excursions. A hollow-eyed man as tall as Tage hurried breathlessly past him towards the metro, his back-swept hair lying plaintively in the early summer hour, his attaché case glistening in the sunlight as if it were a mirror reflecting the rays coming from above.
They walked briskly towards Riddarhuset, the House of the Nobility. The traffic that passed under the bridge and on around the Old Town was light. At ten minutes past seven, Anna Lisa fished out her phone and called Evert. Seeing the old lady’s brittle, wrinkled fingers tap away at a smartphone in her hand seemed anachronistic to Tage. But he had learned that such prejudices didn’t apply to the members of The Group.
He waited for her to start talking on the phone. It wasn’t like Evert to be late. Not that a ten-minute delay meant anything for most people. But for Evert to turn up anything other than on time on this particular morning was unthinkable to those who knew him.
Anna Lisa nodded to indicate that the call had gone through. Tage wondered why she wasn’t saying anything, why it was taking so long. She raised her eyebrows. Then she flinched, as if something had alarmed her.
‘I got one of those automatic voice things,’ she explained and killed the call. ‘Why isn’t he picking up?’
‘Call again,’ said Tage.
So she did. No answer. After eight rings it went to voicemail again. They waited another ten minutes. Tage wasn’t quite sure what to believe, but he wasn’t worried. He was certain that there was a natural explanation. Evert would appear at any minute, all out of breath after some improvised detour. To follow a shadow, for instance.
Then Anna Lisa said:
‘Have you got my number saved?’
‘Of course I have.’
‘Then go to Evert’s place and check. I’ll call you if he shows up.’
‘He had a terrible cold yesterday,’ Tage remembered. ‘Maybe he’s in a really bad way?’
Anna Lisa shook her head. Tage thought something strange had come over her.
‘I’ll keep an eye out here. Get back at once if he’s not in!’
Tage bounded up the stairs to Evert’s flat on David Bagares gata three at a time. When he reached his door he realised what had happened, and a sensation that his world was about to fall apart came to him as the blood pumped far too quickly through his head. The usual door was there, but something unusual on it drew all of his attention, shrinking the world to a narrow field. Breathing fast, he stepped forward to extract the knife that was deeply embedded in the wood. He had to tug hard on it, and failed to dislodge it at his first attempt. The piece of paper impaled on its point fluttered to the floor. The knife left a deep gash in the door.
He opened the folded note and, in spite of his dread, forced himself to read what it said.
The following contains graphic images that sensitive viewers might find upsetting.
Evert Kihlberg came to. The physical pain was immediate and unbearable. It burned, ached frenetically, pressing on his joints with bone-crushing force, his skin stretched taut as if about to be ripped away. He realised that he was suspended, and he knew what it was that he was suspended from, too. A voice laughed, a familiar voice. Too familiar.
‘You!’ exclaimed Evert. He wanted to scream, figuring someone might come to his rescue if he yelled loud enough.
‘Disappointed?’ asked the voice.
Evert made no reply.
‘As you’ve probably worked out, a bomb’s going to be detonated in the city soon. And I don’t think Tage and Anna Lisa can do anything about it. You see, they haven’t even started calling round to your Group yet. There are more and more of us now, and if things go as we intend them to, Tage will abandon his hunt for us and start looking for you instead.’
A violent rage erupted in Evert, despite the pain. The voice chuckled again.
‘How I’ve longed for this moment. Your self-righteous hypocrisy, your vain attempts to make yourself seem important. It makes me want to puke.’
‘If I’m harmless, why kill me now? Admit it, you’re afraid. Of me, but also of Tage. And you know – you should be.’
‘We’ll see how afraid we have to be.’
That laugh again. Evert was about to faint from the pain. The blood in his veins struggled on with ever diminishing vigour, the supply choked by chains, their metal hard against his bare skin. His eyes were covered with a blindfold, and all was blackness before him. He realised his body was rupturing. He was cold. The force tore and stabbed at his chest, shoulders and groin as his body hung under its own weight. He was going to break apart.
‘Why?’ The words came with difficulty through his parched, fused lips, but Evert wanted to gain time. He needed to understand. He loved everyone in The Group like sisters and brothers.
‘We have little time now. But there is one more thing I wanted to tell you. You will die an agonising death. In an hour’s time boats will be passing below, and when they do, the bridge will open and your body will be ripped in two.’
Evert listened to the wind as it howled. He sensed that he was suspended high up in the air.
Another voice. He thought he recognised that one, too. They conferred, curtly, officiously. There was something familiar about the newcomer. And then he realised something, something that changed everything. And he realised, too, why the Lifeline was a dangerous and effective weapon. Would Tage think of it, unprompted? He wished he could tell him, it would have been more important than anything else. Evert fell into a brief faint, returned feebly, couldn’t concentrate, lost contact. He could feel it in every fibre of his being, his body couldn’t take it any more.
He didn’t hear what was said, their dialogue drowned out by a rushing sound. His head drooped to one side. He had entered a twilight zone. Semi-conscious now, his pain was being dulled by merciful endorphins. And in the midst if it all, something trickled into his mind, an idea. The idea gave him an ounce of strength. His voice was hoarse as he coerced the words from his lips.
‘Which one of you is Klebb, and which one Iskolde?’
But he heard no answer, or maybe no answer came. He just receded into some pain-free space beyond consciousness.
Chaos in the T-Centralen metro station’s Sergels Torg exit. No one’s allowed down onto the platforms. The staff can’t explain why, since they themselves don’t know what’s happened, only that an alarm has sounded. People hear that there’s been some sort of disaster: no one knows what the situation is, but no one walks away, either. It’s as if a signal’s gone out, a signal that something weird is going on. So the crowds hang around when they learn that the metro has been closed off. They stand around curiously waiting instead of fleeing on the nearest alternative means of transport.
A furious roar erupts from the tunnels. People come running up the deactivated escalators from the platforms to the main ticket hall, fear burning in their eyes. Like it does in those who have just escaped death. Many are crying and screaming. But there’s also something else that unites them. Everyone coming up the escalators is wet.
When he sees this, Mofid Ibrahim makes his way to the escalators in the prevailing confusion. He manages to steal past the staff on duty while they make phone calls and shout to each other, and heads cautiously towards the platform, but remains on the steps, unable to believe that what he sees is possible. But his mind is quick, and he calls up to the people standing higher up the escalator, closer to the ticket hall. Yells at them through the calamitous din to come and help him.
Mofid Ibrahim steps down onto the foot of the escalator and regards the hell that was once the platform for the westbound trains. It’s hard to see – the lights are out, the power seems to be down – but there’s some form of faint illumination that enables him to make out more and more as his eyes grow accustomed to the gloom.
The water comes cascading from far down the tunnels by the exit to the main railway station, spewing out of the gaping holes in violently surging torrents that slam into pillars, crash down onto benches and the red vending machines, and smash into the walls beside Mofid and two other people who have appeared beside him. The water splashes into their eyes and hair, floods the lift at the end of the platform and tears two waste bins off their pillars. They disappear along with the rubbish into the floodwaters. The water seeks and finds its way out and in through the tunnels, heading towards the next station. The noise is deafening. He watches a vending machine get wrenched off its foundations, twisting itself free with a metallic squeal as it disappears into the current.
Now and then Mofid sees people float past and vanish, some dead, others with arms and legs flailing, twisting and turning for something to grab onto as they battle the eddies of a superior foe. He sees their helplessness: they have as much power as a worm wriggling on the hook on which it’s impaled.
Meanwhile, the platforms are flooding as the water level rises before their eyes. The two people standing on either side of Mofid do as he does and scan the area with their eyes, systematically, anticipating some imminent task, but there are no cries of anguish or lament. The water reaches the three spectators’ feet and Mofid instinctively retreats up a step. The others follow suit. He sees nine desperate people, counts them by pointing in front of him, nine people who have found refuge on the benches further down the platform. Owing to the tremendous speed of the water and the whirlpool-like formation that has started to take shape in the torrent between them and the steps to the exit, the stranded party don’t dare to make their way to safety. They just cling onto each other where they stand, clustered on the pair of benches as the water rises.
Mofid Ibrahim looks around him. One of the two people who followed him down the escalator is a young blond guy, and he can see in his eyes that he’s also searching. For what?
The water is rising fast. Down the platform, a girl climbs onto the back of the bench but she loses balance, sways. A woman grabs her shoulder. They scream and cry for help. His other follower, a young woman of Asian appearance, calls back that they’ll help them. She turns to Mofid: what are they going to do? The water is gushing ferociously towards them, breaking assertively against the bottom step.
Mofid isn’t alone. There are three of them standing at the foot of the escalator down to the deluge, him and a young guy and a young woman, their shoes and trousers soaked. It’s far too risky to venture out. Above them on the steps more citizens come to the rescue.
Mofid removes his trousers and calls out to everyone to do the same. The blond youth has already started to copy Mofid, and the woman slips her belt out of her jeans, which she then also takes off while urging the others higher up to do likewise. Mofid and his two companions take charge and help each other to tie sturdy reef knots as far down the trouser legs as possible. Clothing from the other helpers is passed down to the knot-tiers. The water rises slowly, the people on the stairs are trouserless, and some of the shoes they’ve kicked off are dragged out and disappear under the rapids in the tunnel. The little company retreat another step up as they work on their knots.
The people stranded on the benches stare at the people on the escalators with reverence. When Mofid has what he and the others believe to be a sufficiently long arrangement of knotted trousers and belts, he turns to the benches and yells across the water at a man, who can barely hear him above the noise of the water coursing in from Riddarfjärden, to take the end and fasten it securely.
Mofid rolls up the front pair of jeans into a ball. He hurls it with all his strength, and it reaches the benches at the first attempt. With a trembling body the man ties the chain of clothes to the bench. The group on the escalator take up the slack, everyone pitching in as if engaging in a tug-of-war with the bench at the other end. The trousers and belts are stretched into a taut bow of cloth and leather. Mofid is at the front, the blond youth at the back, the chain of clothes wrapped around him to stop it from slipping. Five people ready their grip and pull.
At that moment, an enormous bulk issues from one of the tunnels, a train, jerking with a hideous noise down its tracks, flushed along by the pressure of the water, alternately pitching forwards and settling back with the ebb and flow of the current. Its carriage windows are black and opaque. As if the train were some enormous beast, what now comes lurching along the platform is like a dead leviathan being propelled by prodigious forces.
En tredje värld
Ekström & Garay, 2021, 457 pages
Foreign rights: the author
We are grateful to Martin Björklind and Ekström & Garay for permission to publish this translated extract.
Martin Björklind is a psychologist living in the Stockholm archipelago. His debut novel A Third World is a philosophical metropolitan thriller. It is yet to be translated into English.
Neil Betteridge is a translator and subtitler working from Swedish to English. He lives in the Stockholm archipelago.