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Utopia meets reality - Sweden after Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy

Utopia meets reality - Sweden after Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy

Published: 26 Jun 2012 10:35 GMT+02:00
Updated: 26 Jun 2012 10:35 GMT+02:00

Sweden – a country of sexually liberated people, sensible cars and flat-pack furniture, or a modern society battling with violence, injustice and men who hate women? The Local's Rebecca Martin looks at how the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has affected Sweden’s image abroad.

“Looking at what has been written in the foreign press about Larsson and the Millennium trilogy, a darker – but also more multi-faceted image of Sweden emerges,” media analyst Joakim Lind tells The Local.

According to Lind, the Sweden of the Millennium books has seriously challenged the stereotypical image of Sweden that existed before.

A Sweden of Ikea, Volvo and the welfare state has given way in some extent to a more modern and realistic Sweden with its fair share of crime, injustice, and violence.

The conclusions drawn by Lind, an analyst with Swedish PR firm Cloudberry Communications, are detailed in a recently released study he carried out for the Swedish Institute.

Lind's report shows a new image of Sweden emerging in the international consciousness – not in the least through the fictional oeuvre of world-acclaimed crime writer Stieg Larsson.

In the study, Lind reviewed a large number of articles pertaining to Stieg Larsson and his writing, including book reviews, travel features and news articles.

The success of the Millennium books has sparked a huge interest in Sweden on the part of tourists, spawning guided tours in the capital which take participants in the author’s and his characters' footsteps.

Lind argues that it is this geographical anchoring, as well as the connection to events in Sweden from the end of the 1980s and until present day that have brought Larsson's books the success that have attained among readers abroad.

“The new image of Sweden has more depth and it has made the country more interesting abroad. There is a feeling that ‘finally the front has been removed’ and we can talk about the issues that challenge all modern nations,” he explains.

The fact that these issues were broached first through fictional narrative may have had an impact on how the audience has engaged with the new image of Sweden that emerges in the novels, according to Lind, sparking a curiosity to find out what lies beyond the stereotypical image of Sweden.

While Larsson wasn’t the first author to do this, the international success of his books has exposed an ever-growing audience of people outside of Sweden to an image of the country that stands sharp contrast to the progressive, socially liberal utopian ideal that prevailed previously.

“And that means that the image of Sweden visible through Larsson’s narrative is bringing up issues such as violence, extremist groups and violence against women, not just in Sweden but also abroad,” Lind says.

It was this more sinister image of Sweden that King Carl XVI Gustaf in 2011 said he was worried about; a Sweden much darker than he recognized his realm to be.

But working on the study, Lind found that as Sweden has lost some of its reputation as the “impeccable nation” among the foreign press, it has actually become easier for journalists from abroad to relate to the country.

“Sweden now stands out as a country which no longer can or needs to pretend to be something other than what it is and has been. A country which faces the same challenges as most other countries", Lind writes in his report.

Swedish journalist Arash Mokhtari, who is active in the organization Quick Response, which investigates how the Swedish media report on immigration, integration and xenophobia, took part in a recent panel debate about the study, and agrees that the image of Sweden is changing, both within the country and abroad.

"There is definitely something happening with the Swedish self-image, largely thanks to good domestic investigative journalism," he tells The Local.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, Swedes were far more likely to hide behind the image of the country as a paragon of justice, but today there is more humility among citizens, according to Mokhtari.

“There have been so many instances where Swedes have been forced to face up to the fact that the country is in no way infallible,” says Mokhtari, bringing up examples such as Sweden’s involvement in the building of a Saudi arms plant, the rendition of two Egyptian citizens at the behest of the CIA, and of recurring coverage of violence against women.

In his work, Mohktari has met a lot of foreign journalists, and has seen the consequences of the stereotypical image of Sweden.

When talking to audiences or groups in Eastern Europe of hidden racism in Sweden, for example, Mokhtari has often been met with the feeling that it is a “luxury” to battle racism at that level; that there are places not far away where the situation is far worse.

“And that does not lead to a constructive discussion,” he points out.

Instead, the evolution of the international image of Sweden has led to greater understanding and more opportunities to exchange experience and views on the challenges facing most countries, such as everyday racism, sexism or violence.

This view is also shared by feminist journalist Sonja Schwarzenberger, one of the instigators of the Twitter hashtag #prataomdet or #talkaboutit. She also won Sweden's most prestigious prize for journalism, Stora Journalistpriset, for efforts to get Swedes to share their stories of the grey areas of non-consensual sex.

In her experience when travelling abroad, Schwarzenberger finds the image of Sweden among those she meets is that as a socialist paradise – the exception that proved that the model was possible.

“When I said there were injustices and suffering in Sweden too they were disappointed and surprised,” she tells The Local.

And in her work with #prataomdet, which also sparked interest internationally, Schwarzenberger was often met with confused journalists saying, “But I thought you were liberated?”

“I tried to explain that that was the reason we could even have this discussion in Sweden and also that the question of men’s violence against women is still a highly controversial topic, even here,” Schwarzenberger says.

Both Schwarzenberger and Mokhtari agree, however, that the fact that these issues have been brought out in the open – through fiction or fact – gives others a reason to compare and discuss them in way that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

And according to Lind, Larsson’s Millennium books will, in the long run, serve as a portrayal of Sweden in the early years of the 21st century.

“But as many of the issues brought up in the books have been topical for hundreds – if not thousands – of years, they will continue to be topical from different angles for centuries," Lind writes in the report.

"They will also be read and given a renewed relevance by the time and place in which they are read."

Rebecca Martin

Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

12:02 June 26, 2012 by skogsbo
haven't all these so called changes happened globally, because of the way journalism and internet useage has made it easier for people to access information in any country, at any time of day.

Just look at this site, 10-20years ago, you would never have had a means of getting news from Sweden, Norway, Germany etc. in English, that could be accessed global within minutes of The Local's staff google translating an Afton Bladet headline.

It's nothing to do with a few million people reading a work of fiction, it happens to have coincidentally happened at the same time and people are looking to deep into one aspect of the media. They weren't the best books in the world, they just were an easy read, that skipped along, like the Da Vinci Code, which also brought tourists to Paris, London, Scotland etc.. the Italy with it's follow ups. It too spawned some rather average movies!
12:55 June 26, 2012 by philster61
"Sexually liberated"??? giggle. Nowadays being sexually liberated in Sweden could get you into a lot of trouble.
16:26 June 26, 2012 by Erefus
Why is Stieg Larsson's worldview given such credibility anyway? Given that noone has a completely accurate worldview, since we're no better than our sources. Stieg Larsson was very far to the left ideologically, being active in an organization that was initially called League of Revolutionary Marxists, then changed to Communist Workers League and finally The Socialist Party. Stieg also claimed that not only does honor-culture not exist, but it's also racist to claim it does, because according to him it's just "mens violence against women" and culture couldn't possibly affect that. Do people not realize the books are fictional too? Then I'd hate to see what Michael Bay-fans worldview is like.

"There is definitely something happening with the Swedish self-image, largely thanks to good domestic investigative journalism," he tells The Local.

Stop patting yourselves on the back, only swedish journalists would for example pixelate someones feet.
16:28 June 27, 2012 by Roy E
If portraying Sweden as a sick, dark, and twisted dystopia was the objective, then the Millenium series would have to be considered a success.

There is no redeeming value in Larsson's negativity . It's the sort of thing that only a nihilist could love.
16:45 June 27, 2012 by MillencolinFan
It wasn't Steig Larsson's work that first interested me. It was the work of bands like Millencolin, Acid House Kings and the filmmaking of Josef Fares. It's funny now that Larsson's work is so familiar to so many that their image is ONLY what the Millennium Trilogy has portrayed. For those of us who've been to Sweden, it's so much more.
07:21 June 28, 2012 by tranel
A sidenote, but let me bring this up:

Could we please, please, please stop referring to Stieg Larsson as a "good writer."

He. is. not. End of discussion. The books were OK (not brilliant by any means) but the writing... cliches left and right, dull as hell, sometimes just cringeworthy.

Read them in both English and Swedish. Understand there was some infighting between translator and editors during the production of the English version, and that shows in the translation - but that's not the translator's fault.
12:53 June 28, 2012 by olga118
"We" are certainly entitled to refer to Stieg Larsson as a good write if we wish to. "You" are obviously entitled to your opinion.

If I thought an author was just "OK" I would not continue reading their work so I find it quite interesting that you were compelled to read all three of his books...interesting.
18:46 June 28, 2012 by cogito
In his review of the trilogy for the Spanish paper El Pais, Mario Vargas Llosa compared the Swedish novelist to literary greats Dumas, Dickens and Hugo.

But what does Vargas Llosa know about fiction?. He's just a Nobel prizewinner in literature.
14:54 June 29, 2012 by Ron Pavellas
The three books were fair to very good summer/airplane reading, The first half of book 2 had too much backstory from book 1 in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I read therm all. I thought the movies good to great as entertainment, not necessarily as social commentary. Noomi Rapace was mesmerizing. I've lived in Stockholm 10 years and the books didn't change my perception of it. It's a great place to live.
16:38 June 29, 2012 by Looking in
Perhaps media analyst Lind should have looked further afield than Steig's work to make a balanced report or analysis. For example he does not appear to mention Henning Mankell's work where we have been aware of this darker, wider world of Sweden through his detective, Wallander. Nor does Lind bother to mention female authors such as Camilla Lackberg and Asa Larsson who, in my opinion, are far better writers and also give us an insight into darker topics such as racism, domestic violence, fanaticism, people and sex slave trafficking, and so on. No Steig didn't advance this work too much and certainly can't take a preeminent position. He is just one of many Swedish writers, both male and female have been exposing a more multifaceted Sweden for quite some time.
17:38 June 29, 2012 by philster61
Whenever somebody asks me what Sweden and Swedish women are like, I say read Stieg larsson
20:31 June 30, 2012 by Emerentia
To believe that Sweden is like in the Stieg Larsson novels is like believing that the UK is like in Harry Potter or Midsomer Murders.
02:40 July 1, 2012 by rc franden
as probably stieg would probably say iam no Shakespear just a guy who likes to write and tell a good story and hope you enjoy it like bubble gum something to keep the mind thinking rather then watching it on a screen.
08:13 July 1, 2012 by schmuck281
I read the first one. But was not sufficiently impressed to tackle the others. Knowing as I do, how much information is still kept on Paper 1.0 kept me from buying into the magic "hacker" thing. They can find out a lot of things but only those things that are kept on compter and connected to the outside. The novel presents the "hacker" as a ex deux machina.

I did not find the characters convincing and could not generate any interest in them.

#5 - a Nobel Prize does not bestow any particular knowledge or insight on the recipient even in the area it was awarded. Paul Krugman and Barack Obama have proven that.

Credentials are worth less and less.
20:55 July 1, 2012 by cogito
@schmuck281

Krugman and Obama...hmmm....good point. Certainly a Nobel prize is worth less and less.
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