Nobel a likely no-no for Sweden’s king of crime fiction

Nobel a likely no-no for Sweden's king of crime fiction
The most popular work of crime fiction ever published in Sweden is never likely to win a Nobel Prize. But it should, argues Jeanne Rudbeck, who is left spellbound by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, has not yet asked my opinion. But when they do, I’ll advise the distinguished committee that the world’s most prestigious literary award for 2008 should go to Stieg Larsson.

It is remotely possible that they won’t heed my advice. For starters, they’d have to take the highly unusual measure of awarding it posthumously. The Swedish author died of a heart attack in 2004, aged 50, shortly before his Millennium Trilogy became a worldwide phenomenon.

Reviewers throw around epithets such as “masterpiece,” “the total detective novel” and “a major literary work.” The French translator compared Millennium to Balzac’s Human Comedy. In Denmark, the first volume has outsold all other books bar the Bible. Will Larsson catch up with God? It’s not out of the question.

The hype is justified. I opened the first book, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and did not come up for air for 500 pages. Career tip: Do not start reading on Sunday night. Before you know it the clock says 7 a.m. and you realize with shock that you are going to arrive late for your 8 a.m. meeting unshowered and with bloodshot eyes.

It’s because of the girl. In geek-Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created a heroine destined to become as iconic as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, though Salander is a tad less seductive. Liberally tattooed, multi-pierced and officially classified as psychopathic by the social welfare bureaucracy, Lisbeth is Pippi Longstocking on speed.

“46% of women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.”

Each section of Tattoo opens with a terrifying statistic about violence toward women. Larsson demolishes the myth of Sweden, Feminist Utopia. (In Swedish the title of the first book is “Men Who Hate Women.” The English publisher’s decision to weaken it to “The Girl With the Dragoon Tattoo” is odd, to say the least, in a novel preoccupied with serial abuse of women.)

Tattoo exposes the covert misogyny of a nation that likes to boast that half the members of Parliament are women. It lifts the lid on domestic violence, prostitution, sex trafficking, and the mistreatment women suffer at the hands of the psychiatric services.

In his portrait of Scandinavian noir, of all that festers beneath the surface image of a clean, well-lighted place, Larsson is heir to the legacy of his rollicking light-hearted compatriots Ingmar Bergman and August Strindberg.

Lisbeth Salander would feel right at home in a play by the infamously misogynist Swedish writer who once said: “Woman already by nature is instinctively villainous.” Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in the play bearing her name, attempted to train her fiancé with a riding whip while fantasizing about the annihilation of the male sex. Lisbeth uses more high-tech weapons.

Ingmar Bergman, on the other hand, was generally sympathetic to the plight of women. A vanguard feminist, he had unique insight into the female psyche: his films often focused on women crushed by the oppressive rigidity of Swedish society plunging deeper and deeper into misery.

But Bergman too looked through a glass darkly at the clean surfaces of the placid, restrained, civic-minded country where everyone is shiny, fair and straight as the lines of an Ikea bookcase. His films have some terrifying depictions of family life behind bourgeois hypocrisy.

The plot of Tattoo? Beats me. All sorts of horrors turn up under the snow, most of them involving a powerful and respectable family dealing with a virulent strain of Nazism. The publisher thoughtfully provides a genealogical chart to help the reader keep track of who did what to whom.

The basics: the hero, Martin Blomkvist, is a sort of investigative journalist who never misses a chance to denounce the cowardice and incompetence of Swedish journalism and society’s ills. With the avenging angel Salander powering his way, he takes on the moral bankruptcy of big business and government corruption. In the third book the pair grapple with the most sinister power of all, the Swedish secret service.

When Salander and Blomkvist are not busy exposing the underside of the self-proclaimed moral kingdom where everyone has a social conscience, they drink coffee. On every second page someone brews coffee, pours coffee, drinks coffee or goes to the Konsum supermarket to buy more coffee. An American reader asked me if all Swedes do is drink coffee and eat sandwiches. “Yes,” I replied.

OK, maybe it’s a stretch to place Larsson among lofty luminaries like Flaubert and Strindberg. Finely honed prose in high literary style, this is not. But never mind. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare Millennium the first important work of literature of the century. An Australian newspaper called it Sweden’s answer to War and Peace.

Are you paying attention, Swedish Academy?

Oh well, they bypassed Tolstoy too.

The Millennium trilogy is published in 33 countries and 12 languages.and has sold 6.5 million copies worldwide.

The American edition, for which there are waiting lists, will be released in September 2008. It is said to have fetched the highest price an American publisher has ever paid for rights to a Swedish author.