Swedish. Meat. Balls.
When I picture the Nordic landscape, a place I’ve longed to visit, I envision long streaks of grays, blues, greens, and browns, interrupted with flurries of brilliant color, as in the many fishing villages which dot the coastline. And in my mind, these magnificent splashes juxtapose perfectly against the coolness of the countryside. The counterbalance of the two is what gives each its power.
Here in America, we seldom consider balance. If something is good, our thought is to then accentuate it, and make it even “better.” The mantra of America seems to be “show more, do more, bigger, higher, louder, faster.” Our films, for example, are big, over-sensory experiences where there is no such thing as “too much.” But focusing on the easily exploitable is not a very difficult bulls-eye to hit. What takes real artistry — balls, even — is to present life in a fully-nuanced and realistic manner, in all its complexity, and doing so is much harder than it would appear.
When I was younger, I knew little of Sweden, aside from IKEA. And while I appreciated all-things-lingonberry and the clean design aesthetic the big blue store presented, I was always disappointed to get the products home and discover that, as pretty as they had appeared, they rarely stood up in terms of quality. Whereas the stores themselves had no problem serving up heaping piles of meatballs, their poorly-made products clearly lacked “the meat.”
But while that may have been the case with IKEA, that has never been true of the arts of Sweden, much of which has its roots in modern realism. Films by such directors as Ingmar Bergman and Lasse Hallestrom are jam-packed with meat, though the meat itself is rarely talked about. It is there, front and center, infusing all around it, giving the gift of nuance and subtext, but it is put into context. The characters react to it, with their reactions revealing their true nature to the audience, and sometimes to themselves. The meat is rarely treated as anything more than just another ingredient in the stew.
That Swedish tradition of balance and context has continued with the recent “Millennium” novel series, which kicked off with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, as well as its accompanying films. True, Lisbeth Salander may be one kick-ass heroine, but even she has her moments of quiet, and the wounds she suffers, both emotionally and physically, hound her until the end. In the soon-to-come American remake, I’m willing to bet Lisbeth will be turned into some Angelina Jolie-ish fembot, wearing Armani as she tirelessly battles super-villains and bad hair, impervious to all.
Amazingly, the American TV remake of Sweden’s “The Killing” manages to keep this sought-after balance intact. While the dead girl and her murder permeates everything, you still see stolen moments of pain, laughter, day-to-day weariness, and quiet contemplation.
In these books and films, it is a matter of keeping life in perspective. The sex and violence, while sometimes brutal, are offset by moments of solitude and reflection, and the slower pacing this creates serves to make the explosive moments all the more shattering.
“My Brother and His Brother”, a terrific new book I recently discovered by Swedish author Håkan Lindquist, shares this complex balancing act, leaving the reader thoroughly entranced in the process. Acclaimed in both Sweden and France, the author himself has finally translated his own work into English, much to his audience’s benefit.
A slim novel, “My Brother” quickly brings readers into the world of Jonas Lundberg, a young boy who has grown up in the shadow of his deceased older brother, Paul. Never having known Paul, as he was born after his death, Jonas is drawn to the stories he’s heard about him, and finds himself being pulled inexplicably towards the details of Paul’s tragic death. Was it an accident, as he has always been told, or is something more at play?
Billed as a mystery, while there are such elements, the novel never feels gimmicky. There is never an appearance by a hardened detective, or a villain, smoothing their mustache with a smirk. Rather, it is an evocative and subtle look into one boy’s pain — indeed, his family’s — and how by unraveling the mysteries of the past, this teenager is able come into his own, evolving into an assured young man.
Just as with “The Killing” and the “Millennium” series, there is a sparsity to the writing. It is clean, concise, and unadorned; almost poetic. Whether this is purposeful, due to translation issues, a nod to Strinberg, or simply a Swedish aesthetic, this simplicity serves to highlight the more dramatic moments, providing that much needed balance.
These quieter moments help the characters, and we the readers, open emotionally, giving ourselves over to the narrative, instead of having it pummeled into us. And when you allow something to seep into your marrow, as “My Brother and His Brother” did to me, it is difficult to walk away unaffected.