The oversold utopia that is Northern Europe

I bought a book by Stieg Larsson for the first time (reading it is something else), pretty much on the backs of this piece.  I’ve since then came across various other reviews of Larsson’s work, many have marveled at the the explosive genre that is the Swedish crime novel, and many see the common themes of dystopian discontent that runs through the stories.

But none was able to put into context the hard realities behind fictionally politicized setting of those stories, significance of Larsson’s protagonists, the ironic manner in which his fictional world collided with the pettily bureaucracies and hypocrisies of everyday life, in quite the same way.  I wasn’t sure how someone could so succinctly capture the tired and over-sold cultural superiority of those northern states, until I read the author actually lives in Norway.

There’s a tendency for the international community—and, if my Swedish friends are to be believed, Swedes themselves—to view countries like Sweden as morally superior, gender-equal socialist paradises. But the welfare state, like any utopia, is never finished. For many years now, crime has been on the rise in Sweden. Close to a fifth of the population is unemployed or on long-term sick leave or disability, paid for by the state. Immigrants have been arriving since the 1950s and Sweden’s Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality still hasn’t figured out how to assimilate them. The Swedish industrial base has all but crumbled. To believe in the gemütlichkeit of the “people’s home”—as the Swede’s call their welfare state—amid all these inadequacies is to give up on the future, to make the perfectable present into a dystopia by accepting its failures along with its successes.

As for gender equality, perhaps a source of great pride for the Nordics, Larsson is on the offence.

Statistics introduce each section of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: “46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man”; “92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.” These entr’actes, with their reliance on hard facts, suggest that the crime novel we’re reading is not a work of pure imagination. Even in progressive Sweden, more than a few men don’t treat women the way they should, and the elaborate welfare system meant to ensure and enforce Sweden’s progressive ideals hasn’t been doing its job.

And in a sad twist of fate, having died without a will in 2004 just before his books got published, Larsson’s lucrative estate was left in the hands of his estranged father and brother.  Both played right into the kind of drama Larsson himself would’ve written. They promptly declared his partner – a woman whom had supported Larsson’s writings both financially, and no doubt, emotionally, for 30+ years, to be mentally unstable, thus cutting her off from the money.

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