Stieg Larsson's Swedish feminist heroine (1st comment)

Sweden's darker side, and a feminist avenging angel

Larsson: Scourge of the right.
Larsson: Scourge of the right.

Karl-Stig-Erland Larsson, now known to the world as Stieg Larsson, currently the world's most famous feminist author, won't know of the feeding frenzy accompanying this week's huge publication event. Larsson, who died in 2004 at the age of 50, didn't live to see even the first book of his trilogy published, let alone the third.

His new book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third in his Millenium series, dissects Swedish culture again and will go on sale in the U.S. shortly. The two previous books in the series— The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire— sold some 27 million copies and inspired a Swedish film version of the first book.

Larsson was a radical journalist who exposed corruption in Sweden and illuminated that country's right-wing extremism, shattering its supposedly idyllic image by chronicling its blackened heart. What Ingmar Bergman did for Swedish private life— that is, expose its dark side— Larsson did for Swedish public life. His death (of a heart attack) has spawned conspiracy theories in Stockholm, where some contend that he was assassinated. Larsson was, also by all accounts, a life-long feminist.

Assassination targets

Sweden is known elsewhere as an ideal socialist state, but it's hardly an untroubled land. Olof Palme, the country's left-leaning prime minister, was shot in the back at close range on February 28, 1986, as he walked home from the cinema with his wife on a main Stockholm street. An alleged assassin, while apprehended and tried, saw his verdict overturned on appeal. Today, the crime remains unsolved.

Then, on September 10, 2003, another liberal politician, Anna Lindh, was brutally stabbed to death in the ladies' department of Stockholm's famous Nordiska Kompaniet department store. Her killer was caught and confessed to knifing her repeatedly in the abdomen, arms and chest because of her political views.

These and other crimes in Sweden— plus its considerable immigrant issue— have wielded enormous impact on its culture and literature. The death of Palme is said to have influenced Larsson as well as Henning Mankell, the creator of the Kurt Wallander detective series.

From Bergman to IKEA

The popularity of these novels, as well as the earlier prototype— the Martin Beck series of ten books, written by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, a husband and wife team— have set the stage for the burgeoning Scandinavian "police procedural" novels that captivate Europe and are becoming extremely popular in the U.S. These books, beginning with the Beck series, dissected Swedish culture through the lens of law enforcement.

And Sweden culture, in turn, has long influenced the rest of the Western world: think of Ingmar Bergman, the pop music group ABBA, Dag Hammarskjöld and IKEA. So the current international interest in Swedish crime fiction shouldn't come as a total surprise. Larsson's trilogy, exploring as it does Swedish men and their institutions and by extension the world's inherent sexism, is viewed as a reflection on today's global society.

The novels follow the parallel lives of Mikael Blomkvist, a Larsson-esque journalist and owner of a publication, Millenium (hence the name of the trilogy), and his tattooed sidekick and friend, computer hacker, deviant, bi-sexual, pierced, five-foot dynamo, Lisbeth Salander, who plays with fire and stirs hornets' nests. Even Larsson himself has called her strange character an underligher— an oddity.

Asperger vigilante

She of the troubled past (firebombing her father, for instance, as a child) is not out to set to right any wrongs the way Blomkvist is. Lisbeth just wants to live her Asperger syndrome-like life and be left in peace to do her thing. Yet she refuses to allow anyone to stand in her way. She has her own set of morals and standards and becomes a vigilante of sorts if pushed against the wall. This is one chick who won't take shit from anyone.

It is to Larsson's credit that he created a heroic female figure— not a caricature, but a real three-dimensional creation. Lisbeth Salander, stranger than fiction, is a woman one can both empathize with and emulate. Consider what she does to her so-called court-appointed protector, the infamous Nils Bjurman, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Sodomized and dehumanized by Bjurman, Lisbeth— played in the movie beautifully and authentically by the Swedish actress, Noomi Rapace— neither goes to the police (whom she distrusts) nor to any other Swedish authority. Instead, she takes charge of her situation in a brilliant, brutal and daring way. Refusing to become Bjurman's victim, she gives him his comeuppance. Let's just say, she won't be bothered by the likes of Bjurman again.

A grownup Pippi Longstocking

Unlike other writers of crime fiction, Larsson overtly seeks to encourage feminist discourse and outrage. In effect Lisbeth is Larsson's own version of a grown-up Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lingren's unconventional, assertive and intuitive nine-year-old fictitious character. Where Pippi talks back to and makes fun of adults with alacrity, Lisbeth inflicts bodily harm on the private parts of her male tormentors.

Ellen Key, the Swedish social reformer and philosopher, has written that the emancipation of women was the greatest movement of the 19th Century. Larsson believed that the issue of women's rights was not solved in that century. He contended that it is today's biggest problem. His saga gives voice to the struggle of women in so-called emancipated nations like Sweden and, by association, the U.S. and the rest of the European Union. His novels may or may not change society. What can be said with certainty, however, is that Larsson is one hell of a read.♦

To read another commentary by Tom Purdom, click here.

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