Translated by Susan Beard and introduced by the translator with the author
This article appeared in the 2013:1 issue.
Lotta Lundberg, who has lived and worked in Berlin since 2004, made her breakthrough with Skynda, kom och se (Roll Up, Roll Up!) in 2006. Her debut novel Låta sig hända (Let Yourself Happen, 1998) concerns loaded topics such as sexuality and setting personal boundaries, themes which run through all her books. Since then she has written a further three novels and a collection of essays.
Her latest novel Ön (The Island, 2012) is based on a true event which took place on the island of Pitcairn in the Pacific Ocean, home of the Bounty mutineers and one of the last remaining colonies of the British Empire. In 2004, following reports made by tourists of underage sexual abuse on the island, charges were brought against most of the adult male population of Pitcairn, and three British social workers were sent to investigate. The islanders, a population of 47, were themselves divided, some of them blaming the British for encouraging the women to press charges. Most believed underage sex was normal and a Polynesian tradition. But did this tradition mask a tolerance of sexual promiscuity and tacit acceptance of child sexual abuse? Seven men went on trial and all but one were found guilty.
Lotta visualised the English judges in their black gowns and white wigs wandering beside the turquoise lagoons as the islanders slipped off into the jungle to hide among the hibiscus flowers. ‘A cliché, of course – it didn’t really happen like that,’ she says. ‘But what did happen when the women of the island tried to clear the names of their sons and husbands? And when half the men on the island were thrown into the jail they were forced to build among the palm trees? And what was the western world doing as it waited for the cruise ships to set course once again for this paradise island? And can a colony ever be a paradise? The novel questions the difficulties of knowing where to draw your own boundaries. It is also about the way tourism indirectly influences the cultures we turn into our dream of paradise. But who does paradise belong to and who is prepared to abandon their concept of it? Most of all it is about this: when is sex abusive?’
The Island tells the story of Olivia, drawn to Pitcairn by her love of adventure, the calm tempo and the relaxed attitude to love and sex. For twenty years she has worked as a doctor in the island’s clinic and become part of its culture. She has fallen in love not only with the island but with Taip, its local leader.
Then suddenly there is the British Visit, and everything changes. The English social services administrators sent to the island to handle the case find that for a couple of sweltering months their preconceptions of freedom, sexuality and guilt are turned upside down. At first Olivia resents the presence of the British social workers but she is subsequently forced to question values she has always taken for granted. What is right and what is wrong? Is it simply a question of two different outlooks, a collision of cultures?
Lotta has always been concerned with the notion of the Other, the art of being able to put yourself in someone else’s situation. ‘Every good novel centres on an ethical conflict,’ she says, ‘And a story has to be profoundly complex and multi-faceted before I can even think of beginning any kind of research.’ But there have to be less easily interpreted grey areas as well, to create a story in which the characters appear psychologically credible. To Lotta that is the great art of writing.
‘All of that was present in this story, I felt, if only I dared look at myself and my culture in the mirror. It was the most difficult project I had attempted because for a long time I wanted history to be black and white. The Island is in line with my earlier work. I have written about boundaries, sexuality, identity and taboos before. My writing has never been uncontroversial, often it has given rise to debate, but seldom has it been as difficult as this – or as important.’
In the following extracts, from pages 7-11 and 20-21 of the novel, Olivia watches as the three British administrators arrive on Pitcairn. Is the life she knows and her relationship with one of the islanders about to be threatened, or is there a case to be answered? Then there is Moana who, along with most of the island’s teenagers, dreams of a different future from that of her parents. And she has strong feelings herself about the atomic tests taking place in the islands.
Olivia stands in the shade of a palm tree, watching them step down into the water. Three of them, with suitcases. The waves break against the flat boat and the man in front has his hand to his forehead. Like a scout he surveys the island. The youngsters have gathered on the roof of the custom house. He raises his hand in an awkward wave and she draws back, not responding to the gesture, although what she really wants to do is go up to them and ask why they are not already wearing their wigs and black gowns. But she stays where she is, treading sand. It is dry but nevertheless sticks between her toes. The sun beats down and their faces swell in the heat as they wade barefoot towards the shore, their shoes hanging around their necks by the laces. The woman dangles hers from one hand and lifts her skirt over her knees to avoid the cresting waves. The men’s trouser legs are already dark with salty water. They are trying to look happy, as if they are arriving on holiday with pockets full of condoms, as if they had already downed a crate of beer on the boat.
For a split second she feels an impulse to take off her clothes and swim out, to give them the welcome Captain Cook received three hundred years earlier. To fill her mouth with sea water and spray out an alluring little fountain, kick her legs suggestively and let her breasts bob on the surface. To float about stark naked and beckon them to follow her through the lagoon. Naturally, she does not do that. She remains under the palm tree, playing with the ballpoint pen in her pocket, clicking it in and out, in and out. She watches as the cases are unloaded, the computers and trunks and other baggage, and carried on the heads of the boys through the water and up to the beach. No one meets them with garlands of flowers. Everyone waits languidly up by the road. Almost everyone: Taip’s mass of hair is nowhere to be seen.
‘Can you tell me what this is all about?’ she had asked, when the confirmation came through. ‘Would you please be good enough to tell me.’ That was earlier in the year and he had not replied. His mouth was a tight line and his pupils small and hard, and Olivia could no longer meet his gaze. Instead she stepped closer and pressed her face to his throat as if she could hide herself there. But the smell was sour and it was hard for her to breathe so she twisted sideways, digging her fingers into his shoulder. A little too hard. A little too much fingernail. He yelped and pushed her away so roughly she almost stumbled.
‘Hey Doc, what are you doing?’
She turned her back to him. He knew very well she hated it when he called her Doc. He grabbed her shoulders and swung her around. She looked him in the eyes. And there they stood, locked in their power struggle.
Normally there was eroticism in those moments, a desire that could only end one way. But she felt anything but desire, only a faded contempt and she did not know whose it was. After a few seconds she averted her eyes and walked out onto the veranda, taking the steps down to the water in two strides. A hen scratched around in the grass. Don’t stop, just keep walking, walking straight out into the waves until the currents are so strong they pull you over and drag you away. Walk far enough to make him invisible. But at the shoreline, where the shells start to crunch underfoot, she stopped, thinking for a moment he had followed after her, that any minute he would grasp her waist and tip her onto the sand, lie on top of her and prise her out of her shirt, wrestle and laugh against her neck, Give in, Olivia, give in… But he did not follow. No heavy, playful Taip followed. Instead he remained on the veranda, calling. She took one more step into the water and watched it swirl around her ankles, stirring up the sand and sucking her feet down deeper and deeper, and for a moment she felt almost static, fixed to the spot, until she heard his voice again. It reached her in between the swell of the waves. And it was not playful or even angry, but afraid.
They have come ashore now, all three of them standing in the sand looking confused, tired and hot, and from nowhere the children suddenly appear with hands full of garlands after all: Toby, Nick, Caroline, Ria and Mata.
Olivia does not understand it. Hadn’t the village council decided not to give them a welcome – at least not with lei. She looks about, not seeing anyone in charge. The children place the flowers round the pale necks and the three visitors smile politely, thanking them and looking around, wiping the sweat from their foreheads. No sign of Taip. Where on earth has he got to? She clicks the pen in and out, in and out, wondering once again if she should go and show some goodwill. Forget Taip. No doubt he is sitting drinking somewhere or lying on the veranda tossing himself off, because surely he is not at home in his tourist bungalow, shaking mosquito nets and making their beds? That is an unlikely thought. She cannot imagine where they will be staying. Who has opened their home for them? No, she is not going to bother. She will not go forward and take part in the spectacle, smile and say How do you do. You’re very, very welcome. It will not do. Over her dead body. She runs away, quite surprisingly. It is not her style. Olivia never runs away. But she does now. She rushes home to her clinic.
Where is he? She stumbles over an unopened box on the veranda, and the scissors, tubes and sugar that came on the last cargo boat rattle around inside. She throws her shirt over the arm of the chair, rinses her face and glares into the mirror. She has never been one for mirrors so she does not smile. It is his mirror that he hung up on steel wire above her wash basin. He stands there sometimes, shaving. The frame is rusty, salty spray has flecked the surface and there is a line of shaving foam along one side. Or is it toothpaste spit? She blinks. The person she sees between the flecks is not ugly but middle aged, and a few strands of grey hair have escaped from the elastic band and damp silver hair clings to her forehead. On the bridge of her nose the freckles have grown together to form a big brown mass, faded by the sun. If she was in Sweden she would have had it tested long ago to rule out malignant melanoma, but she isn’t and so this is how it is.
She jumps. Someone is coming along the road.
‘At last! There you are’! she wants to shout. But those are not Taip’s footsteps, they are Moana’s. And the closer she gets to the clinic the more clearly Olivia can read her expression. It is agitated.
‘Where have you been?’ she asks as she walks into the kitchen. It sounds almost like an accusation.
‘Here.’ Olivia is relieved that it is not Taip. ‘I’ve just been here. You?’
‘Down by the boat.’ Moana tries to look unconcerned, spitting out the words as if they did not matter, and they do not, always, but today is a special day. Everyone will remember where they were the day the Englishmen stepped off the boat.
Olivia tries to keep her anxiety to herself and watches as Moana goes to the fridge and takes out a can of Coke. As if nothing had happened. The can hisses and she sucks up the layer of froth.
‘Mind your lips,’ says Olivia, and Moana shrugs and twists off the ring pull. She sinks into the chair beside the fridge, swallows a couple of large gulps and then hands the can to Olivia, who shakes her head.
‘No thanks.’ She pats her waistband, because even though she has lived on the other side of the globe for nearly half her life she recently made up her mind that it isn’t fat she has to watch out for but carbohydrates, the sugar in fizzy drinks. But she doesn’t say that. Moana hates the doctor voice, as she calls it.
‘So, you were at the boat…’ Olivia hears her voice sounding higher now, as it does when she is trying not to reveal her irritation.
‘Yes, but you weren’t.’
‘I had a few things to do here.’ She looks down, wondering why she has lied. Would it have made any difference if Moana knew she had been standing under the palm tree, watching? Like all the others. As if she had never before in her life seen three pig-pink Englishmen.
‘Oh, right.’ Moana plays about with her tongue in the can opening.
‘Don’t do that,’ Olivia says again. ‘You might cut yourself.’
Her voice is shrill now, and thin, as if it might crack. But it does not crack. Olivia does not crack, but even if she did sometime, somewhere, she would make sure she cracked alone. Instead it is Moana’s voice that cracks.
‘I hate them,’ she says suddenly. ‘I hate them.’ And her head sinks to her chest and it sounds almost as if the kid is crying.