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Bernt-Olov Andersson

Syrenernas tid. (Lilac time)
Gidlunds, 1995 and Som en lilja (As a lily) in 1997.
216 pp.

Syrenernas tid is a novel in the tradition of what is known in Swedish as the collective novel, a favourite genre of the 1930s, in which there is no one hero or heroine, and hence no single plot. Several groups of characters go about their daily lives and frequently intermingle,but in so far as there is a hero at all it is the society and environment in which they live.

The setting of this novel is a so-called brukssamhälle in central Sweden: the small town revolves around the iron-works (bruk), and class differences are marked. The upper classes rarely appear, except in so far as they are criticised for their stand-offishness and exploitation of the workers. The setting of Lilac time is clearly authentic and evidently autobiographical. Andersson was born in 1947 and at an early age moved with his family to Sandviken, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants in central Sweden dominated by the iron industry, where they lived in a house owned by the factory.

Like his father and two brothers, Andersson was employed at the iron works - but after sixteen years of mind-numbing labour, noise and dirt, he broke free to become a full-time writer.

The novel starts with a description of young Bosse arriving at their new home, a flat in a factory-owned terrace, with his mother in a removal van. It is freezing cold and snowing. Their furniture is unloaded in the street, but there is no sign of Dad, who had travelled in advance to make preparation. Mum goes to look for him - needless to say, he has been drinking and she despairs of how they will be able to get the furniture off the street. But when she returns, all has been carried in by new neighbour Paul Brandt, known to everyone as Järbo-Jätten (The Järbo Giant).

Brandt is enormous, slightly retarded and suffer from epileptic fits; his workmates make fun of him, but he is a gentle giant full of goodwill and kindness - unless he is taunted beyond breaking point, when he becomes violent and dangerous.

Several other groups af characters are introduced, and a series of episodes builds up to form a convincing and vivid picture of working-class life in a typical small factory town in central Sweden in the 1950s. The harsh realities of the workplace, the constant heavy drinking, the frequent violence and suffering are mingled with tender moments - the innocent friendship growing into love between young Bosse and Berit; the wistful longing for romance and escape on the part of Maggan, who is attracted by a handsome young Mexican television journalist in Sweden for the Football World Cup (but she inevitably ends up marrying her Finnish lover, the father of her child, in a scene intended to be one of joy and celebration but which in fact deteriorates into a drunken brawl).

Perhaps the most moving episode of all are those concerning the family where the parents (Rut and Pluggen) are alcoholics and the children (Maria and Pär, known as Pärra) are in constant terror. Rut attempts suicide at one point, and at another, Pärra is within an ace of killing his father when the latter threatens his wife with serious violence. The hopelessness of their situation and the bleak future for the children is compellingly portrayed, and one of the most moving section of the novel is when the welfare officials arrive to take Maria and Pärra into care. Rut is confused and hopeless. Pluggen is surly and violent; Maria is resigned and heavy of heart, but agrees to go to a new home in the knowledge that it is here only hope of a decent life; Pärra is obstreporous and refuses to leave home, partly no doubt because of an inbred mistrust of them, but partly because he knows his mother will suffer at the hands of his father in one of their regular drunken brawls if he is not there to protect her.

The fact that one cares about Pärra's future prospects and the suspicion that his environment has condemned him to suppress all tender feelings, to play the tough guy, to react violently, and no doubt be destined to lead a life of thuggery, drunkenness and criminality, is a tribute to Andersson's ability to create credible characters and authentic setting.

Short report by translator Laurie Thompson,
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