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The Call of the Unheard-of

Written by: Eva Adolfsson |

One of the most remarkable debuts in Swedish literature is Sara Lidman’s (born 1923) novel Tjärdalen (1953; The Tar Kiln). With motif and language drawn from a small Norrland village, this tightly woven novel was an immediate success with critics as well as readers. And this is where the ground is laid for a magnificent literary world, to which Lidman’s oeuvre to this day has remained faithful.

It starts in the village. Sara Lidman’s novels are constructed from speech and narrative threads between a multitude of people, united in the village. Usually this village is situated in Norrland, on the outskirts of civilisation, but it has scions in Africa and Vietnam. Its characteristics are poverty and exploitation – but at the same time it is presented, in the diversified interplay between its citizens, as a strangely rich collective.

The village’s evasive defence is surrounded by a shimmer of conciliation. This does not least happen through the language placed in the mouths of the villagers, a poetically humoristic coupling of biblical and dialectal, of courtly and everyday. The village life is spoken forth as a collective whole of grandiose goodness and vile selfishness, of lacks and surplus. This so that every letter of the law has a meeting with a throng of circumstances and nuances of meaning.

In Tjärdalen, moral conflict is central. It can be read in biblical terms, as a complex Judas parable. A question of betrayal and abandonment is posed to the village as a whole: can a poor village afford to be merciful, to help even one of its most wretched members, a thief and destroyer?

Tjärdalen’s village has not that mercy. Jonas, who in inconceivable malice has destroyed another man’s tar kiln, is injured. The village leaves him to die of gangrene. The doctor, sent for after a delay, is clear in his verdict: “The village is guilty of murder”.

Tjärdalen’s depiction of the citizens grants them the absolution of everyday life – in their own way they have done what they could. Into this everyday situation steps, questioning, the upright Petrus. But even the upright man falls and the wife comforts the guilt-stricken: “No one asks more than that you look out for yourself”. But he accepts his blame: “In so far as you live in a village, you must care”.

By degrees this truth stands out as the credo of the works: in so far as one lives with people, one must engage with them! Thus tough questions of guilt and treason are raised, wrapped in a loving, forgiving narrative, in a continued balancing act between law and grace.

The narration of law and grace also becomes a narration of the conflict between the male and the female. A conflict which in the following novel, Hjortronlandet (1955; Cloudberry Country), is interwoven with the croft girl Claudette’s development.

Where Tjärdalen concentrated on the drama of the present, Hjortronlandet describes an epic movement: a milieu is depicted through the growing individual who is leaving it. Genre-wise it is close to the proletarian autobiography of the 1930s, and describes the same double movement: it depicts the milieu of origin in its own right, but simultaneously shows the need for departure, however guilt ridden, but also full of the knowledge that this origin is the essential wellspring of the person who leaves it.

Hjortronlandet’s village is a world at the border, both of the wilderness and of the uttermost poverty. It is also a border existence where the immediate, the presence of feeling in the now, has not yet given way to the civilised world’s instrumentality, an existence akin to childhood.

Cullberg, Erland (born 1931): Den handikappade, 1982. Oil on canvas. Private collection

This childish living makes the people of the village defenceless and trapped in poverty. But it also contains a strength supported by the largest family in the village, the Skrattars (Laughers), the family of extravagant poverty. With the descriptions of the Skrattar family, the ridicule and countryside humour are brought into the tale’s controversy with the adversary: the authorities and the stingy law-abidingness: “They laughed as if no authority was present in the room”.

But the border village is also the world of the woman giving birth: she who exists in the borderland between biology and history, between cloudberry wilderness and the dwellings of men. The village and the narrative are dominated by two grand women, both connected to giving birth: Skrattars’ Stina, mother of ten, and Anna, Claudette’s grandmother, the village’s unofficial and self-taught midwife. Stina’s laugh and Anna’s wisdom insert the tale into the carnivalesque culture of laughter. Out of the birthgiving-eating-dying body’s parts, a world is built where the idea of rebirth coincides with the idea of the cycle of life.

In the same way as in Ivar Lo-Johansson’s Godnatt, jord (1933; Goodnight, Earth) or Moa Martinson’s Mia-trilogy, Hjortronlandet (1955; Cloudberry Country) depicts the origin of the world as dominated by mother figures. These are beings who border on the great mystery, on sexuality, giving birth, origin. But where Ivar Lo-Johansson’s young hero is cut off from the secrets of the mother group, while Moa Martinson’s girl is swiftly inducted into this woman’s world, Claudette takes up a middle position (significant in the authorship as a whole): she finds herself in motion between the woman’s world and the father’s world – where the female polarity for once is allowed to dominate.

But the carnivalesque world where meat turns to hay and the human is “everywhere and nowhere” is a complicated matter for one who wants to grow into a separate individual: “Claudette. Cloddette. Clodda. She was impossible”. In the village her aristocratic name Claudette is dragged down to the level of the nauseating: “‘Clod … what kind did you say, Stina slurped … Clod after – you start thinking of afterbirth, don’t you’”.

But the narrative shows that it is possible to mediate between the bodily ‘low’ and ethically ‘high’ choice. When Claudette leaves the village she brings with her the mission to remember: “The island soughed and whispered at the back of her head: I will always be with you”.

In both the following, mutually interconnected novels Regnspiran (1958; Eng. tr. The Rain Bird) and Bära mistel (1960; To Carry Mistletoe), Sara Lidman again treats of the border village. This time it is the village of the father and the patriarchs – thus her narration is always characterised by new renditions of basic themes.

Through the local and coincidental stories told about the mother who gave birth late in life, about the father who burnt the daughter’s sinful doll, about the daughter who tries to lure herself to love, are echoed the biblical tales of Sara and Hagar, of Abraham and Isak, of Tamar and Juda, and Lea and Rachel.

The main character is the girl known to the village as Linda, later the grown up Linda Ståhl (Steel) who has left the village – and in many ways betrayed it. The core of the narration is Linda’s ambiguous love for her father, the strict patriarch.

This father casts his dark shadow over the initially tender mother-and-child world. A dominating gravity of tone at each step in the narration points to a meaning beyond the immediate everyday – an allegorising that, particularly in Regnspiran, has the Old Testament tales as its evocative soundboard.

In Regnspiran, the main symbol becomes the bird, whose lamenting sound is believed to presage rain. The question arises: is the cry aimed at something as simple as rain – or is it a warning to attempt to understand something much larger, something that touches humankind’s prevented love for each other and for the world?

For law-abiding people like Linda’s father, the rainbird’s (a swift) complaint has an admixture of vile temptation: “It was the rainbird that disturbed Adam’s repose in God by singing about mortal life, so that Adam was taken by longing to try it”.

With assistance from everyday life, the song’s great significance is denied: “‘Well, there’s rain on the way’, becomes the reduced formula, ‘by which the unheard-of was foiled’”. In opposition to this, Regnspiran works to make the speech of the unheard-of heard: the speech of love and sorrow, the speech of responsibility and guilt and destiny.

Regnspiran (1958; The Rain Bird) is also a tale of law and grace. The law is connected with the hard father. Grace is the birth-giving woman, the mother and child – “the benign love, a rash goodwill”. Here, too, the growing girl chooses to approach the woman – but to chose the mother’s kind of love implies renouncing the father so strongly that it is akin to treason.

Alongside this question of guilt, a different question about the girl in a village of patriarchs emerges: what place exists for a strong, rebellious, guilt ridden woman? The answer is that she cannot really be accommodated. A theme about the strong woman (and, indirectly, the female artist) who cannot find a place in the world is taking shape.

In Bära mistel this grows to become the main theme. Mrs Linda Ståhl loves a homosexual man. Her attempts at making advances bring her to the perception of herself as being a horribly swelling, embarrassingly oversized body: “She felt herself just increasing so that it took effort just to remain sitting in the chair, she swelled with shame, she no longer fit.”

This immeasurable body is rejected by the man in disgust and terror, and by the woman in shame and self-disgust. But in the end her own path is glimpsed: bodily vulgar, she can reach truth only in community with other rejects – Linda’s last years of wandering are drawn as an exercise in the community of the lowest.

“The queen is dead” is a repeated phrase from the start of the tale. It is an omen of how the successful Linda Ståhl will be stripped of her queenly robes to reach the strength that lies in giving oneself to love.

The Village in the World

In 1961 Sara Lidman publishes Jag och min son (1961; I and My Son), whose action takes place in South Africa, beginning a new stage in her body of work.

The movement out into the world also causes a move towards a more normal Swedish prose. While the dialect and the biblical language recede, the moving between multiple voices also comes to an end. Through a single temperament, problems are now being submitted for debate and solution. Mainly political problems: the colonial oppression, the imperialistic exploitation.

The basic condition in Jag och min son (1961; I and My Son) is the same as in the early novels: “In so far as you live in a village, you must care”. In harmony with the tradition of the Swedish proletarian novel. Opposed to the 1950s’ pessimism, absurdism, and ‘un-engaged’ poetry.

Jag och min son (1961; I and My Son) depicts one of the white exploiters of the South African people. A father who fanatically protects his own son also helps himself to exploit those outside his circle of love – which appears as a paradigm of the Western world’s attitude towards the third world.

Even if the village in Norrland is only a glimpsed, painful memory in Jag och min son, the reality of the village is strongly present in the following African book, Med fem diamanter (1964; With Five Diamonds). Here we meet the African tribal township, and a way of life about to be crushed through the economic and social conditions of the colonised country. Wachira, the man from the black village, is degraded to ‘boy’ in the white city and never succeeds in buying himself a wife. Med fem diamanter focuses on one of the authorship’s major themes, love and its circumstances. Wachira’s love for the young Wambura is so strong it can soar high above the meanest circumstances – but not for ever and aye. Med fem diamanter (1964; With Five Diamonds) becomes a tale of stealing love from the exploited.

Miners in Kiruna. Black and white photograph from Sara Lidman: Gruva, 1968. Photographer: Odd Uhrbom

Sara Lidman’s third great work during that time was Gruva (1968; Mine) from 1968. It contains photographer Odd Uhrbom’s pictures of the miners in Kiruna and Svappavaara, and Lidman’s interviews with them. “Their own words would sink or swim them”, she writes in a postscript. The author’s explicit commitment from both previous novels is here superfluous – the revolting truth seems to speak directly to the reader. And precisely the human richness of the speakers becomes the greatest political charge: how the working conditions threaten this diversity.

Gruva (1968; Mine), which was one of the trendsetting report books of the 1960s, got an enthusiastic reception, and the cause of the miners for a time became a matter for the cultural public. A year after publication, when they went on strike, it also became one for the political public.

The travel book Samtal i Hanoi (1966; Conversations in Hanoi), 1966, became one of the most influential books supporting the Vietnamese cause. Once more there is the mobility between voices – simultaneous with the reporter’s distance to the foreigner, an unsolved mystery: this extraordinary person I have met and yet only glimpsed!

During this time Sara Lidman’s main contribution is only partly that of the author. Just as important is the debater, the playwright, and above all the political speaker Sara Lidman. She appears in a combination unusual to the Swedish public of being fact-oriented yet in possession of an emotional language, a mixture of the front reporter and the Canticles. Exemplary, loved, and hated.

The Railroad Books begin in the restfulness of motherhood, with the mercy of the world of birth-giving, depicting the image of the nursing lamb: “And the Lamb was sealed. The Lamb, the eternal proof that Our Lord would that man should live here, in the parish of Lillvattnet (Little Waters) with woman and children. See the Lamb, who takes away the hunger of the child and fills the mother’s breast with milk and love.”

The Village in History

At the beginning of the 1970s, Sara Lidman moves back to her hometown in Norrland. In 1977 when she publishes her first book in seven years, it is greeted by jubilant critics as a homecoming, not least to the exploited Norrland, but also to Literature with a capital L. The book is Din tjänare hör (1977; Your Servant Listens), the first volume of a planned trilogy, which turned into a five-parter. It is followed by Vredens barn (1979; Child of Wrath), Nabots sten (1981; Eng. tr. Naboth’s Stone), Den underbare mannen (1983; The Wonderful Man), and Järnkronan (1985; The Iron Crown). This suite of novels unites the political period’s social criticism with a consciousness of history and the multiple narrative voices from the early stages of the authorship.

The world is once more the village in Norrland, now in a historic setting: a sparsely built up region bordering the wilderness, which during the 1870s and 1880s is connected to industrial and capitalist Sweden. The thought is born in one of the villagers, the young Didrik, that a railway – “railroad” – must unite his region with the nation’s capital. This project is eventually carried through, but with consequences quite different from those intended.

Didrik’s male “utåt!” (onwards!) dominates the novel’s chain of events. But the boyish manliness is written towards a maturity where the jubilant world conqueror discovers the world of home. This, in the context of the authorship as a whole, becomes a – new, different – processing of the betrayal of the village, the departure.

At the same time Didrik’s journey becomes an inner one, towards the village, and towards woman. A return well founded in the tale. From the first page the staged “narration in situ” (as Lidman expressed it with regards to Stina Aronson) dominates over the progressive narration. And the ‘stage’ shows the village’s way of life, in a sort of lively ethnographical depiction which is criss-crossed and dominated by the greater narration of the love between man and woman and the strife between the lamb and the horse.

Sara Lidman’s Railroad Books further develop “the Norrland novel”, that tells how riches are gained for the emerging industrialism from the northern wilderness (Olof Högberg, Hedenvind-Eriksson); tales full of folk tales and myth, far from every attempt at “socialist realism”. They continue with a language and a mythology that Sara Lidman created in her early works. The mythology (with lineage also from the predecessor Stina Aronson): that the historical facts are written into a movement between two polarities that could be called mother’s world and father’s world, or grace and law, or lamb and horse.

Just as in her earlier Norrland novels, Sara Lidman here depicts a region at the periphery of civilisation. The Railroad Books are tales of colonisation, about ditching wetlands, building houses, setting boundaries, and people filling the empty space with the sound of their voices and their work – a struggle between human order and the not-yet-ordered. The books at once describe the necessary and questionable in passing from lawless to law-bound, from wooded land without delineations to a land bound by iron rails, accessible to law and sheriff.

The building of civilisation that the area’s inhabitants are engaged in is laborious, but also passionate: this is where the civilised world’s goods will benefit the Region! But on the other hand, these conquests also contain the colonising power’s order. The further into the narrative sequence, the more oppressive and threatening this creation of the far away central civilisation appears. Oppressive both as the law of Sweden, which is gradually revealed as the law of the rich, and as something deeply ambiguous in this kind of construction – a kind that in spite of the good intentions detracts from the region, changing the village’s connections between man and man and animals and space and ground.

Stepping into the landscape of the railway builders in Lifsens rot (1996; Eng. tr. <em>The Root of Life</em>) is the complex woman Rönnog. With her, a counter voice to the praise is introduced, a voice of anger. She takes on the role of being a hub of order in a family living in poverty and loving rashness. A conflicted existence that culminates in a settlement between two kinds of progressives: the old O´lförarn (Chairman), Rönnog’s father-in-law, for whom modernity is a wasteful dream of inter-human communication; and Rönnog who, burdened by responsibility, sees the future in rational housekeeping, in hygiene and diligence. Along with the speech of strife live the novel’s descriptions of love, where the words of separation give way to the voice that unites: “what did it matter what she said when her voice was solely declaring that where you are there I want to be also”.

In this way the work of the novel becomes that of retaining the complexity of the border region. The books become a journey towards the border of wilderness in an inner linguistic sense as well: one must travel towards the limits of words, towards a widening language that is more sensed than of statutory significance. A journey towards that which is rhythm, sound, events in the spaces between words.

This is how enriching freedom is created. One example is Sara Lidman’s open, poetic way of using punctuation marks. The full stops that make statements and punctuate are replaced (particularly towards the end of the suite) by the em-dash or by space itself. Statements are left unfinished – there seems to be a confidence that the reader in the same way as in oral communication will grasp that which is silently stated, that which is implied, and the meaningful interruption.

At the same time, the Railroad Books give full scope to the passionate enjoyment of the riches of the language. Throughout the sequence we follow Didrik’s conquest of foreign linguistic worlds and meet his fireworks of dazzling loanwords. Didrik’s way of tasting the words can be seen as a reader’s guide to the Railroad Books in their entirety: “Escritoire. Imperial. Furnishings. Bonjour. What happened between palate and tongue when he pronounced such words – that was the dizzy joke for the Tschairman?” A sort of oral, resounding prose (Sara Lidman has also been a successful reciter of her books). The rich language used in the Railroad Books takes its nourishment from childhood, when words still fully retain their bodily, mouth-titillating life.

For long passages, the Railroad Books become a strongly erotic text: the suggestive and, at the same time, sensual language is triumphant in the love scenes. These contain a ‘cannibalistic’ motif. “Ida spoke about the man-being as if she had eaten him completely.” “She could have eaten him from pure rage, she said.” In the Railroad Books, even the words themselves are inducted into this bodily sphere. There are words that are spoken, words that pass through throats, mouths. An event between “palate and tongue”, as is said of Didrik’s way of speaking.

Simultaneously, not just in the narration but also in the style of writing, a battle exists that gives birth to a carnivalesque antagonism between the written language of authority and a people’s language with roots in gesture, the language of the body. The language of authority is laughed down into the ‘low’, bodily spheres. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ are continually being juxtaposed. When Didrik is imprisoned, the ball and chain of the prisoner become his royal splendour, and his enchained un-touchability becomes an ambiguously royal dignity.

But the degraded language is never given the last word. With Sara Lidman the people’s language – not least! – has its abode in the ‘high’ language sphere. It is a language that is coloured by what the narration calls ‘hov’ – dialect for ‘common sense’, ‘good condition’. It is found in the lovingly emphasised dialectal phrases. Or in the conscientious depictions of the local customs regarding work and social intercourse. And more than anything in the use of biblical phrases and intonation – which create drama, occasionally comedy, but which above all have a courteous ‘elevating’ function: “how everything that has happened in the parishes is elevated by being woven into the life of the holy land”. This ‘hov’ also appears in the respectful way of describing the characters as being in the process of growing, never as complete or predictable. It is a mode of speech that shapes itself to extolment, to songs of praise. As when Didrik speaks of the land, the region: “finally he could praise It. First the Land. And then the laughter that was resolved from her by the presence of the people”.

A speech to the region that also becomes a praise of woman: “and he made the parish a queen, the only Qweijn – for whose sake the Railroad had been built”.

This elevated love speech with its final reunion of the lamb and horse, of mother’s world and father’s world, becomes the grand connective force of the Railroad Books and their civilisation-building. It is a strange alloy of courtly praise and carnivalesque lampoon, of treatise criticising civilisation and of love song. A strange language, astonishing. An invitation, perhaps a possibility, to hear the “outcry of the unheard-of”.

Translated by Marthe Seiden