Sunday, December 05, 2010

Kristian Lundberg: Yarden

Book discussion club book, in Swedish, not translated. To satisfy my vast (oh the wit!) international audience I'll do this in English anyway; it's probably good for the brain that, having to think an extra spin before typing. I did a little job at work this week that involved, well, a fair bit of copy and paste, but also some actual independent writing; I had to put together an answer to a query from a possible business investor about land availability and the like. It was awfully hard, and I had to bring my own laptop to work so I could use the excellent WordFinder dictionaries to do it - the internet did not help me at all when it came to translating terms like detaljplan and fastighetsavstyckning. My point is, that it's good practice to write and translate out of your bilingual comfort zone. True story.
Kristian Lundberg is a fairly well-known Swedish writer to those that keep up - I had never heard of him, I thought, until I googled him after finishing the novel and realising that I had read about him before, in connection to the scandal that is the starting point of Yarden (never explicitly mentioned though, he doesn't want it to monopolize the issue he wants to address in the book). He was all over the papers in 2006 when he wrote a very negative review of a book that hadn't yet been printed and thus obviously not read (according to this article, he might explain why this happened sometime soon - there was an idea behind it). Following this he was shunned by the cultural establishment for a while, and when the bills mounted he took manual labour jobs to get back on his feet. For a year or so he worked at the bottom of society, an outsider among the immigrants and other lower class people who are also forced to take this type of work - yet strangely at home too, because his childhood was turbulent, he hardly went to school, he was an alcoholic before out of his teens, he has been to prison and seen most of his friends from youth die from never getting out of the hard life; in short, he writes, this is what he always thought he was born to do. Manual labour. He's done it before, he's come back to it. And that little intermission as an acclaimed writer, as a regular contributor to national newspapers, as a member of the cultural elite - he never really and truly in his heart expected it to be more than an intermission and somehow feels no surprise that it's over. He takes his place in the shuffling, resigned and submissive line of workers too desperate to demand their rights - who don't even know them. Lundberg does know them, however, and he's angry. He sees that the class struggle isn't over. Loosely translated, he writes that "We're not conducting a class struggle. They are. They do. The ones who are already owners. We just lay down our weapons. They keep gaining ground." And he keeps writing during his exile, because by writing he can feel that he is still a person, that he exists.

Since Lundberg is a poet (who has also written crime fiction, that I've never read, but will now), he can use his words sparingly but piercingly to describe the hopelessness of the situation in the Yard in Malmö harbour. How the company fires people, claiming a shortage of work. How it immediately fills the empty spots with expendable labour, paid by the hour, through a temp agency. If you cross the manager or make yourself "difficult", they don't ring you and ask you back. And there you are, with no income. They are fined if the work clothes they get are damaged. They are left outside in the freezing rain with no breaks. They work crouched over in small spaces for an entire day. One day they knock on the window of the cantine and offices and aren't let in. After a while it transpires that the people on the inside thought they were Poles "and you all know what they're like, we can't have them inside", chuckle chuckle. Meanwhile they were left to eat their lunch cold, outside, in the winter.

The workers are desperate, and they submit. They don't take a stand, they don't stand up for each other. Yet there are acts of solidarity between the men, once they've learnt to trust each other enough. They take turns working in teams so one person can catch up on his sleep (they all work several jobs and are always exhausted) or stretch out an aching back on the floor. Nevertheless, without an organized resistance or union movement their solidarity is without real hope or progress. It's such an important lesson. In Sweden we pat ourselves on the shoulder and think we've got such outstanding labour laws that surely no-one is exploited any more - my arse they're not. It's so fucking tragic.

More books like this, more articles, more debate, more fight. Please and thank you.

That said, I did find the poetic streak a bít much sometimes. But then I've never managed to read poetry. And on the other hand, without the poetic streak if would've felt like one of those awful ranting articles in the syndicalist press maybe: it's the poetry that makes it literature. I heartily recommend it.

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