Sweden’s Sexual Dystopia

All right, I confess. I’ve spent a major part of the last month reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’m not the only person with this confession. The novels—especially the first and third volumes—are addictive. I’d call the books one lengthy novel published in three installments. I use “installments” intentionally because, in their elaborate, skillful plotting, Larsson’s novels resemble nineteenth-century Victorian blockbusters published serially–that is, in installments. Each section of those intricately plotted novels (think of Charles Dickens’ major fiction) ended with a cliff-hanger so that readers would be compelled to purchase the next episode.

Such elaborate structuring made the books addictive in the same way that contemporary readers have responded to the three Millennium volumes–barely able to wait for the publication of the second and third volumes if they read them not as I did (in one fell swoop) but spread over two years.

And then what happens next? That question is also applicable to each individual volume. You reach a stage where the reading becomes compulsive; you have to know what happens next. All of this is a rather elaborate way of saying that I admire Larsson’s imagination, his gift for elaborate plotting, his juggling of a large cast of characters in each novel, and then, finally, his bringing almost all of them back into the action for the denouement of each volume. He’s a master of suspense, of timing.

All three volumes of the trilogy sit at the top of best seller lists not only in the United States but around the world because most readers want to be entertained, surprised, frightened, titillated, perhaps even shocked–and there are plenty of these qualities in the three volumes. Extending the Dickensian parallels a little further takes me to a second reason for the popularity of Larsson’s novels: their social commentary. Just as Dickens wrote about economic, class, and gender inequality, so does his modern counterpart—especially with regard to the subjects of exploitation of women and conservative/right-wing bigotry and excess.

Most readers are unaware that the Swedish titles of Larsson’s novels have been sanitized by translation. We need to know the literal translations of the original titles to understand the full intent of the writer’s concerns. Män som hatar kvinnor translates as Men Who Hate Women and not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Girl Who Played with Fire is a literal translation of Flicken som lekte med elder. However, the third volume, Luftslottet Som Sprägdes, translates literally as The Air Castle That Blew Up, not The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The mistranslation of the first volume is the most revealing. Given the sexual brutalities inflicted on women in Larsson’s novels, it’s no surprise that so many female readers around the world can identify not only with Lisbeth Salander but with other female characters in the initial volume. In all three of the volumes, women are raped, tortured, violently abused, and murdered—victims of men who often live “normal” public lives but secretly can only be regarded as sadistic and demented, sexually disturbed predators and stalkers. Again, Dickens is informative here. Orlick in Dickens’ Great Expectations appears to exist in the novel solely to inflict physical pain on women. He silences Pip’s older sister by knocking her over the head with a hammer. He terrorizes Biddy and finally almost murders Pip to cover up his crimes. He’s a one-man reign of terror in Dickens’s masterpiece.

If the men in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are more violent and more sadistic than Dickens’ Orlick, it is simply because they have at their hands lethal modern instruments and resources for inflicting pain on women. Gottfried and Martin Vanger (father and son) are serial killers of women and the direct cause of Harriett Vanger’s disappearance. Nils Bjurman rapes and tortures Lisbeth Salander. These three men and a series of other minor characters—all male—brutalize, rape, and murder women and derive sadistic pleasure from their acts, committed largely with impunity. The novel is replete with statistics documenting the physical abuse of women in Sweden, women who—in Larsson’s story—become disposable objects. (“Forty-six percent of the women of Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.”

Or, “Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship.” Or, “Ninety-two percent of the women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.”)
Sweden has no monopoly on the abuse of women. The August 6, 2010, issue of The Washington Post contains a half-page advertisement initialed by “AK” and “MC,” who are identified as “Survivors of Craigslist Sex Trafficking.”

They are attempting to expose the advertisements on Craigslist’s Adult Services which, they say, generate $36 million in income yearly from sexual exploitation and trafficking of women. Larsson’s three novels provide multiple examples of women who were trafficked sexually and then disposed of by murder. Worldwide, there are plenty of men who hate women and who perpetrate upon them the most despicable acts, after which presumably–like Nazi torturers during the Holocaust—they return home and have an evening meal with their families and play with their children. Rape, murder, and sexual exploitation are rampant in much of the world—not only in Sweden but in other European countries as well, the United States, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

Men do the most despicable things to women because they know they probably won’t get caught.: rapes in Congo and South Africa, and in much of the rest of the African continent; women ritually circumcised or stoned to death in Muslim countries; infertile women disfigured by their husbands in India; women trafficked around the world—mostly for the sadistic pleasure of men. Is it any surprise that Larsson’s novels are avidly consumed by women readers? Is it any surprise that Lisbeth Salander—denied help by official government agencies—is regarded as one strong woman willing to fight back, to get legitimate revenge against her abusers?

Larsson’s novels do not show Sweden as a sexual utopia, but a dystopia. Few characters are particularly content with their relationships. There are few conventional marriages. When Mikael Blomkvist is asked why he isn’t married, he replies that the woman he is in love with is married to someone else. Somewhere in his forties, he is well-known for his sexual exploits. Erika Berger has worked out a relationship with her husband so that she can sleep with Blomkvist when she wants. It is also revealed that Erika has enjoyed enjoys sex with two men at the same time. Lisbeth Salander is bisexual, as are several other characters. I cite these examples because there are more instances of sexual fluidity than constancy in the novels. I have no statistics regarding marriages in Sweden and their longevity, but I remember that Sweden was one of the first Western countries to permit pornography to be produced and disseminated legally.

Fuse this sexual openness with political self-righteousness and the result is the strange assumption that government bureaucracies and regulations—and watchdog organizations in general–can do no good. By the end of the third volume, the narrative is absolutely clear about the abuse of power within Sweden’s secret service. Salander was locked up for years in order to cover up the defection to Sweden of a high-level Russian spy at the end of the Cold War. While reading Larsson’s trilogy, I was simultaneously re-reading Denis Johnson’s prize-winning novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), which concerns a clandestine or rogue element within the CIA during our war in Vietnam. Whether Johnson’s story is fact or fiction, there are widespread suspicions about high level illegal activities within many governments.

Rendition, incarceration, the torture of prisoners—there are enough known examples of questionable government actions during the Bush administration’s rush into war with Iraq to keep historians busy for years. Larsson himself, as the editor of Expo, spent much of his life exposing anti-democratic, right-wing extremism and Nazi organizations in Sweden. As with his protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, the threats on his life were not imaginary but real. Moreover, according to a fascinating revelation by Kurdo Baski, one of his co-editors at Expo, Larsson had a second, personal reason for writing the three Millennium novels. In an article published in the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, Baski reveals that Larsson confessed that at age fifteen, he “watched three friends rape a girl, also called Lisbeth,” who was the same age and someone he knew. “But he didn’t intervene. His loyalty to his friends was too strong.”

Baski continues, “It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape. Haunted by feelings of guilt, he contacted the girl a few days later. When he begged her to forgive him for his cowardice and passivity, she told him bitterly that she could not accept his explanations. ‘I shall never forgive you,’ she said, gritting her teeth.” Baski’s article–titled “How a Brutal Rape and a Lifelong Burden of guilt fuelled Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Stieg Larsson”—concludes, “For three years, I have been trying to trace the identity of this girl and the boys who raped her but I have been unable to find any of them. I have contacted old friends of Stieg’s and searched through records but the trail has run cold. It seems as if one of the most disturbing but tantalizing incidents of Stieg’s life will for ever remain a mystery.”

Sadly, Larsson died at fifty, in 2004, before the publication of any of these novels. One wonders if he would be surprised by the phenomenal success of his work, including the Swedish film adaptations of the three novels. The first two films which have been released in the United States are impressive renditions of his work. Though also as visually violent as his novels are on the printed page, they are, in fact, so good that one wonders why Hollywood has decided to remake them. My prediction? They won’t be as good as the Swedish versions, and they will also lose something in translation.

Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Translated by Reg Keeland
Various editions: Knopf and Vintage

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. He cannot read or speak Swedish but is probably distantly related to Stieg Larsson (aren’t we all?)

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.