Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pippi Longstocking Grows Up

I'm a late convert to the thrilling trilogy of mysteries written by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, but I'm no less passionate about his characters, the remarkable tattooed and pierced computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and the intrepid left-wing journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Without reading the Millennium series of novels, who would have imagined that Sweden was filled with sex traffickers and rapists, nasty capitalists, drug-dealing motorcycle gangs, rogue government security agents, unrepentant Nazis, and turncoat Communist spies? After a slow start, I gathered speed and fairly rushed through the nearly 2,000 pages, completely caught up in Larsson's fascinating labyrinthine plot twists. By the end I felt a deep sense of disappointment that the Nordic Nick and Nora's adventures were now over.

Larsson's biography and the incredible world-wide popularity of the books he wrote for fun in his spare time (over 25 million copies sold) make a story almost as fascinating as the three that were published only after his death at the age of 50 in 2004 of a heart attack. He was a crusading political journalist who began his career as an activist with a Trotskyist Communist party. As editor of the journal Expo and correspondent for the anti-fascist Searchlight, he documented Sweden's extreme right-ring and racist organizations, forcing him to live in hiding for years because of death threats from his targets. According to the London Guardian, "He raged against exploitation, cruelty, the unchallenged power of institutions and individuals against the meek and the poor. He understood the brutal non-ethics of global capital. It all shows up in the novels." Larsson was a rare example of a male feminist whose principal character Lisbeth Salander is an even more unusual example of a popular feminist heroine, who doesn't hate men, "just men who hate women" (the Swedish title of the trilogy's first novel, translated into English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

When he couldn't sleep, Larsson wrote fiction. He loved crime and sci-fi, edited several fanzines, and was president of the largest Swedish science fiction fan club. He was fond of American and British detective stories and in his trilogy mentioned the authors Sarah Paretsky, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid, and Dorothy Sayers, among others, by name. Pippi Longstocking, the pig-tailed popular heroine created Sweden's Astrid Lindgren, was the model he used for Lisbeth Salander, Larsson admitted, and he conceived her as a grown up Pippi.

Eva Gabrielsson was Larsson's partner of over 30 years. They met in the 1970's at an anti-Vietnam War rally in the north Sweden town where they grew up. Even then, she said, "he defined himself as a feminist. This was unusual. He saw the situation of women at an early age and never stopped seeing it." While his view of the world can "mainly be understood from a perspective of women's rights...his concern was all violence against people who are branded 'wrong' at some 'wrong' point in time. Sooner or later we might all be affected since we all belong to some minority." She said his grandfather who raised him had been imprisoned during the Second World War for his anti-Nazi views, and when he was 14 he saw a girl gang-raped and couldn't stop it. That he also didn't report it filled him with guilt for life. They never married because, Gabrielsson explained, public records are easily available in Sweden, and it would have made Larsson more traceable by his enemies, creating danger for both of them.

A workaholic who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, Larsson suffered a heart attack after climbing seven flights of stairs when his office elevator broke down. Because Sweden has no provision for common law marriage, when he died without a witnessed will (a 1977 document left everything to the Socialist Party), the rapidly escalating wealth due to book sales has gone solely to his family, a father and brother. The resulting feud over the writer's unexpected fortune is seen by many as a tragic injustice that would have upset the feminist author deeply. According to Gabrielsson, he was not close to either of his relatives. "I think they're motivated by greed and envy. They envy my closeness to Stieg. He really disliked his father." She has had a career as an architectural historian and said their work and shared beliefs, as well as Larsson's writing, took the place of children. The Larsson family offered her Stieg’s half of their one bedroom apartment in exchange for his laptop, which contains his notes for a fourth book. She turned them down. They sold the film rights for a fortune and movies have been released of all three books in Sweden (the first opens in London this week). The estate is now valued at over $30 million.

"Stieg would be horrified," she says, at the way her rights have been denied. "We were constantly collaborating and it is my brainchild as well. The only way I can explain the seriousness of it is that it is like someone selling your children, placing them in any old whorehouse for the rest of their lives." As the London Sunday Times critic Joan Smith put it in her review, "the three novels taken together are a cry of rage against the sexual abuse of women and girls." Gabrielsson objected to the change of titles in the English editions of the books and believes the translation is "badly written." A website,, is raising donations for her campaign to change the Swedish inheritance law so that common law spouses are recognized.

Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa explained the Millennium trilogy's success by saying that Larsson had produced one of the great stories of "just avengers" in popular literature. He had read the trilogy with "the same happiness and feverish excitement" with which he had read Dumas, Dickens and Hugo as a boy, "wondering as I turned each page, 'And now what's going to happen next?'" Many of the reviews I've read of the Millennium trilogy (named after Blomkvist's radical journal) are not very complimentary, complaining that Larsson's characters are unbelievable and the plots filled with unusual coincidences. I initially had difficultly imagining a James Bond world in placid Scandinavia. But notes in the third book reminded me of recent political assassinations there. Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down in the street in 1986 and foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store in 2003. The first crime is still unsolved, and the verdict in the second case has by no means satisfied everybody.

Jerry loaned me his copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo months ago and I put it down after a few dozen pages. Larsson is scrupulous about detail and the book is rife with Swedish names and geographical information that made little sense to me. The first mystery takes a while to get going and I was impatient. With nothing else to read after Christmas, I took it out of a pile of unfinished books and started again. At some point I found I couldn't put it down. At the end I quickly searched the bookstores for the sequel, an even more absorbing read than the first. I did not realize that Larsson's trilogy had become a publishing sensation until after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire. Both books were available here in Bangkok in American and British editions. But I couldn't find the third book. Booksellers in America, where The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will not be published until May, are importing copies from England and selling them for as much as $45. I finally found a copy at Asia Books for 350 baht (about $10), and since then all the English bookstores have become flooded with copies.

I'd rather not write a proper book review of the trilogy since you can easily find information about the characters and plots online. My purpose here is just to rave about Stieg Larsson's masterpiece and to urge that you read it for yourself. His political perspective, which he incorporates easily into the stories, is another reason I found his writing congenial. And the injustice done to his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, deserves to be publicized.

As I write this blog post, Bangkok is filling with anti-government demonstrators, and many expect the turnout to number in the hundreds of thousands, effectively shutting down the city. The red shirts have been demonized by the government and the press , even though the Prime Minister told everyone not to panic after warning that bombings and sabotage were expected at 30-40 locations are the city. I think the warnings are designed to justify any later oppression, however harsh. Military roadblocks have been set up all over the country to make it difficult for the predominantly rural protesters to reach the main rally on Sunday near the Democracy Monument. The aim of the red shirts is to force a government that was installed by the same elite that staged a coup in 2006 to resign and call for new elections. That objective is not likely, and the prospects of violence are very real. I will be following events closely, although I have promised Nan not to go out on the streets (at least the expectation of trouble has cleared the roads and traffic is almost non-existent today).

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