Guillou made his name in the early 1970s, when he published articles that revealed the existence of Informationsbyrån, a secret Swedish military intelligence agency that spied on Swedish citizens for political purposes. He was later jailed for espionage.
Since then, Guillou has never been far away from controversy – perhaps a sign of a contentious Gallic streak trumping Nordic consensualism (as his name suggests, he is half French).
With the publication of Madame Terror, his latest novel featuring agent Carl ‘Coq Rouge’ Hamilton, Guillou has certainly kept true to his habit of setting the cat among the pigeons. The book’s plot is set in the here and now, and centres around a female Palestinian officer, Mouna al-Husseini, who comes to a deal with Russia to build a super-submarine, which for the first time would give the Palestinians a technological advantage over Israel.
The timing of the book’s publication could hardly have been more apposite, as Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon after facing a more powerful enemy than anyone had expected.
Is Guillou saying that more weapons in the Middle East would be a good thing? Surely that just escalates things?
“I’m playing around with theories. In real life you can see the escalation coming already, with Hezbollah having access to many more weapons than people expected. Then you can ask what effect this has on the Israelis. This is the first time that they have fought a war and not won it, so it might get them thinking.”
Although a prolific contributor to Swedish newspapers, Guillou often deals with the most difficult issues through fictional accounts – something he started doing after his release from jail as a way of keeping himself out of trouble.
“As a journalist, I can’t add anything to the story. Questions like ‘what if’ are nothing for journalists to tackle. That’s where novelists come in.”
But Madame Terror mixes fiction with fact, with many of the characters real-life politicians – one of the main protagonists in the book is American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Everyone knows that Rice is the US Secretary of State, and you can’t really disguise George W Bush, so why make up lots of fictional characters,” Guillou reasons.
Given that Guillou described the September 11th attacks as “an attack on US imperialism,” one might expect the book to take a negative view of America, but he says it doesn’t.
“I’m not criticizing the US as much as you may think. There are two heroines in this story – one is the Palestinian Brigadier General Mouna al-Husseini – the other is her main opponent Condoleezza Rice.”
Of Rice, Guillou says: “I kind of like her. I don’t share her values, but if someone who is African-American and female becomes a Republican Secretary of State, there is something to admire.”
“Also, in the US administration, Rice is the guy who can hold things back, in contrast to Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney.”
If one of the themes the book examines is what constitutes a terrorist, then it is a debate with particular personal resonance for Guillou. The authorities in the United States appear to have him on a blacklist – the author himself says he doesn’t know why.
Once, arriving in Los Angeles in transit on his way to the South Pacific, he was “taken into a dark, sinister room with lots of Arabs in it”.
“Slightly ashamed, and with my wife in the lounge, I told them that this was a mistake, and that I was a Scandinavian citizen. They banged their computers and said they’d have to expel me – which was all right with me as I was on my way out anyway.”
“But I’m not sure that this is the fault of the US: the Swedish security police have been distributing information about me for decades – I have ridiculed them a lot over the years.”
Quite apart from his views on the US, Guillou has written, among other things, that “the difference between Israel and apartheid South Africa is that Israel executes more people”. His love of hunting has also left him open to attacks, and he has been slammed by gay groups for saying that homosexuality was “more of a fashion, rather than something one is born with. It has come and gone throughout history.”
But the author stands his ground:
“People brush away all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and say that anyone who says something critical about US foreign policy is anti-American, or that someone who says anything about homosexuals is homophobic.”
Given his comments, many gay activists were angry when Guillou was asked to give the opening address at this year’s Stockholm Pride festival. But the author says he was glad to be given the chance.
The same goes for an invitation to co-host a televised debate in the run-up to the Swedish election on September 17th.
Guillou professes to be looking forward to the event more than the result of the election itself, but he says that one important issue is being left out of the whole election campaign.
“The most important question to me is what they’re doing to Swedish democracy – extending terrorist laws such as the bugging laws to ordinary citizens.”
Swedish television presenters don’t usually get entangled in political debates. But whether Guillou will be able to change the habit of a lifetime remains to be seen.