A Change of Pace
“It’s so %*&ing Scandinavian.”
I was in the middle of reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and explaining to a friend why I was having such a good time. Aside from the story itself, there was so much about the way it's written, the interpersonal dynamics, tiny little moments, as well as big ones that were incredibly familiar and felt like home.
It's taken me about five months to finish the Millennium Trilogy - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - and mostly because I took a bit of a break between each, to sort of cleanse my palate. It didn't take long before I needed to dive back into Stieg Larsson’s universe, though and I’m sad it's over. There are certain kinds of books where you can only have the experience of discovering them for the first time - well, obviously this happens with all books, but with some, it's such a profound experience that even if you read them over and over again, you will always miss that first frisson of knowing you are about to be sucked into something completely different and exciting.
By now, you probably know the basics of the story, may even have read the books yourself, as they have been ubiquitous in the on popular, so I’m not going to go into too much detail. Our main characters are the hacker Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist and over the three books, it becomes Lisbeth’s story, as well as the story of the many ways in which misogyny plays out in our world. I find it fascinating that these books that so brilliantly hangs out the many different ways that men hate women - the original title of the first book is Men Who Hate Women - became so ridiculously popular. That's part of me that wonders if they would have had the author being a woman, but we probably all know the answer to that question, so moving on. However, I think it would be a mistake to pass too lightly over the fact that Larsson does explore misogyny on personal, corporate and social levels and how it is expressed in violence against women, discrimination and condescension and he manages to do so while entertaining you. I remember reading a review of the first book and in a comment, someone made a remark along the lines of "there sure seems to be an awful lot of violence against women in Sweden." I sighed and found it very difficult not to leave my own comment, suggesting that the person look into the statistics about violence against women in North America. It’s telling – the concept’s used so much in popular entertainment (such as Law & Order: Mutilated Women’s Unit – yet there’s surprisingly little awareness of it.
Larsson was a journalist and it shows in his writing style. He writes in such a methodical, nonfiction style that the story reads as real, which is aimed as part of its appeal. He also breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing: show, don't tell. The first book starts with a long description of corporate crime that is necessary for the rest of the book to happen and I remember being captivated by it from the start. It is such a different style from North American writing, where thrillers start with a bang and keep going at a breakneck pace, showing what happens as we go along, not allowing for long conversations, long expositions and is one of the things that felt so Scandinavian and made the books so compelling. It took it's time, it was practical, some might have called it plodding and breaks all the rules of the traditional North American thriller template where everything happens very, very quickly and never lets up. The Millennium Trilogy is completely different - yes, a lot happens and yes, a lot of it is nailbiting, but in between, it very much happens in your head. Larsson also managed to pop in a number of fascinating facts about things other than discrimination and violence against women, such as one that just blew my mind. Apparently, international law prohibits the use of expanding bullets in war, because with expanding bullets, death is pretty much guaranteed. Huh??? So it's more sporting to leave soldiers with a bullet wound they may be able to survive? It’s one of those things about honour in war time that is a complete oxymoron, but fascinating.
And then there's the way the books felt like home. I thoroughly enjoyed the translation - not because it's good, although it is. One of the things I found so very charming about the translation is that it is clearly done by a Swede. First, it's translated into British English, because that's what we learn in school in that region of the world and second, there are times where the translator has been a bit iffy about switching idioms, ending up translating something fairly directly. I know enough Swedish and it's generalizable to my Danish experience, so there were many moments of chuckling. Then there are the expressions that although translated correctly don't really make sense in English. Take “practical pig.” This expression is used to describe somebody who is incredibly practical and it lifted straight out of comic books - Disney, I think. When I was growing up, my dad would bring home the Donald Duck magazine every Monday evening - it's the weekly collection of stories featuring Disney characters, and something I've never seen over here. Some of the stories feature the three pigs and continuing quest to avoid the wolf and practical pig is the smart one who built this house out of bricks. And then there are the little social quirks. Take all the coffee. Every time someone visits someone else, they're offered coffee and it happened so much that by the end of it, you're jangling with vicarious over-caffeinated nerves, but I remembered as well that back home, you get coffee in cups, with saucers and a spoon, so you can drink more of it without losing the ability to blink.
I've also been collecting the movies. I got the first one and can highly recommend it - but don't watch it on so after you read the second book or it will ruin a certain plot points for you. I've yet to have time to watch the second one, but it's lying next to my TV and I can't wait. There is this thing that happens when I watch Danish movies where for a while afterwards, I think in Danish and speaking English becomes a matter of translating from the Danish instead of speaking from the place in my head where English lives. Lucia once told me it's called code switching in linguistic circles. And I sort of experienced that watching this movie, except I can't really speak Swedish. I recognize much of it, know many individual words, but it and Danish are different enough that if a Dane and a Swede get together, they tend to speak English to each other. So I was in a bit of a pickle, because for a while there, I was in the place of my head where English is an effort, yet had switched to a language I don't really speak. It didn't last long, but it was confusing while it did.
And then there was this moment of intense homesickness. In one of the very first scenes in the first movie, Henrik Vanger is opening his annual gift of a pressed flower. This older man sitting by his desk, wearing a grey, hand knitted cardigan in a room that is built and furnished in a particular way and you can pause the movie and there is this one frame that is so quintessentially Scandinavian that my heart hurt and for a while after, everything in my regular world looked slightly wrong. It's amazing that even after almost 30 years, you can still get knocked sideways with homesickness.
If you haven't yet, do yourself a favour and get the books and then watch the movies. And don't wait for the American version, get the original.