In Norrlands Akvavit Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren says good-bye to his fictional universe of Avabäck. An old man returns to correct a mistake: In his youth he was a minister, saving the inhabitants in the name of Jesus. Since then he has come to the understanding that there is no god, and that he has commited a grave error. Now the truth must be spread!
Norrlands Akvavit is a slow, melancholy story, but also highly entertaining and intelligent. For those who, like me, have come to love that curious place in the inner parts of Västerbotten in northern Sweden, it’s a must. For the rest, it’s highly recommended.
In Norrlands Akvavit we briefly encounter an old, bearded writer, returned home to finish his last novel about a childhood place he has been accused of making up. It’s not far fetched to see him as Torgny Lindgren himself.
And so he does it again, the old geezer. Torgny Lindgren, that is, telling his ”last” story about the possibly fictional Avabäck in the inner parts of Västerbotten in northern Sweden. A man, Olof Helmersson, gets off the bus, carrying his portable bike. His mission: to roll back his own successful missionary youth, when he ”saved” almost everyone in the area. Many years in the metropolis, in this case: Umeå, has taught him the truth: There is no god! How could he have been so mistaken? How did he manage to convince others of something so obviously flawed as belief in a god? And how will he remedy the situation? There is only one way, and so his traveling begins, from house to house he carries his atheistic message. There is a tiny problem: He is past 80 years old, and most of the people he saved are dead. While he spent his life contemplating his past mistakes they have lived out their lives. The reporter he hoped would help him spread his message, the seemingly eternal Manfred Marklund, is dead, and so is his son, Lil’ Manfred. The line is broken. In Manfred Marklunds place there is a new reporter who isn’t trusted to tell the most important stories, and so spends his time writing a highly fictionalized and over-romantic account of the visit of the Swedish King Karl XV in the 19th century. The big city has taken over telling the stories of the country-side. The land and its people are silenced, except in their nostalgic reminiscence of ye olden days.
One of the most moving parts is when Olof Helmersson asks the blind old man Gideon why he is pleased with being blind. The answer is that Gideon isn’t happy for the blindness in itself, but for all the things he doesn’t have to see missing from his world: The love of his youth (dead), children on their way to school (gone), the mailmans bag (no mail service) and so on. It’s a touching summary of a dying part of Sweden, the small, far-away communities where no-one moves in and the young move out. One young woman has bought a house with her husband from Stockholm, but they will not stay, for tragic reasons. Caring for the old and dying is the only industry left. Along the roads stand abandoned houses, by the lake lies the decrepit carcasses of boats that belonged to those legions of departed. The people who still live in Avabäck don’t even walk along the normal roads, instead they prefer the ditch-paths, slightly off-screen, as if they don’t really exist. It’s a matter of time now, before the land will be silent for ever. Olof Helmersson has come too late, it’s all over. Even for the country itself it’s too late. It’s a very melancholy novel, well worth the read.
Norrlands Akvavit is a slow-paced story, inviting contemplation along with laughter and quite a few touches of sadness. It’s also a more conventional novel, compared to Sweetness (Hummelhonung) or Klingsor, but the low-key humour and homely feeling of Avabäck is good compensation. I preferred the more distinct story-lines in Sweetness, Klingsor and Doré’s Bible, but Norrlands Akvavit serves as a summary and a farewell to a place I, and many with me, have learned to love. And the good thing with literature is that is doesn’t end. So Avabäck is dying? Well, then, read the old books and it will live again!