Albert Bonniers förlag, 2007. ISBN: 9789100110772
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:2
Seasoned author Peter Kihlgård is bidding for our attention with an experiment in form. Events in his latest novel spool backwards, which certainly caused a stir among the reviewers and helped the book take up residence in the Swedish bestseller lists. The publisher describes it as "a story of two modern people who love each other. In spite of everything and for the rest of their lives", but the rather shocking first chapter intimates a suicide pact that would cut those lives very short indeed.
The chapters, written in the third person but alternating the viewpoints of Kicki and Lasse, are choppy, stream of consciousness fragments, like tantalising pieces of the puzzle we are invited to put together. Their torrid relationship is playful and painful, farcical and erotically charged, interrupted but always resumed. It is a source of sorrow to them both that they are childless, and that their hopes of adoption are dashed when the authorities uncover Lasse’s murky past.
Lasse is a gentle giant with large hands and a croaky voice, and prone to outbursts of violent rage. He runs a successful jeans manufacturing company, but has a history as a petty criminal, speed-maniac rally driver and downhill skier. Quicksilver Kicki has dabbled in careers in fashion, arts and the media, but is permanently restless and changes jobs as often as she changes flats – and sexual partners. The only fixed thing in her chaotic universe is Lasse, her champion.
She is the brains, he is the brawn. Admittedly it is not a wild boar or a menhir with which Lasse manfully staggers home across Stockholm one night, it is his beloved Kicki, but once I had started thinking of them in terms of those loyal comrades in arms, Obelix and Asterix, I could not get the image out of my head. The piggyback ride is a metaphor for Kicki and Lasse’s fraught yet close relationship: it strikes Lasse that although Kicki was a heavy burden, it was probably even harder for her to stay clinging on. One Swedish critic rightly characterised their relationship as a folie à deux.
What binds this odd couple is certainly the most interesting aspect of the novel, and it is signalled by a dust-jacket design in which their names are dwarfed by an enormous ampersand. They are trapped in a continuous, linked cycle for which Kihlgård offers another image: the paternoster lift. Lasse’s grandfather made his fortune manufacturing them, and they have played a part in Lasse’s life since birth. The back leaf of the dust jacket provides pictures of a nineteenth-century design for just such a lift.
Seven-eighths of the way through the book, I still had no idea what welded these two individuals together. The last two chapters, the farcical family dinner party (hailed by the Swedish critics as a comic tour de force) and the final, chapter O Magnum Mysterium do at last unlock the secret. We meet the appalling mother from whom Kicki made her urgent escape into an adult world all too ready to exploit her youth and beauty. We witness the bizarre turn of events in a drifting Lasse’s life, the circumstances of his first encounter with Kicki and the mutually redemptive nature of their union.
But so what? My problem with this, for me, essentially nasty-tasting story was that I could not bring myself to care about the characters. Kicki is revealed as a volatile exhibitionist, infantile, sadistic and promiscuous. Lasse, a psychologically unconvincing character for my money, comes across as a morally confused but essentially decent dupe, a man in the grip of an obsession, who at one stage asks himself: "When would he start being able to defend himself against the power she wielded over him?"
Are we meant to see the pair as traumatised victims of life, clinging together for comfort? Perhaps the book is meant to mimic psychoanalysis, taking us further and further back in their lives until we finally think we understand what makes them tick. But nothing is quite what it seems: Kicki and Lasse are mythologisers, who create the legend of themselves by telling each other stories about their families, and re-enacting scenes from their past, confusing the chronology of the novel and the reliability of the narrative still further. Are those distinctive marks under Lasse’s eyes tattoos, we wonder, or scars from the time Kicki tried to claw his eyes out? The novel provides no answers.
One thing never in doubt is the quality of the writing in this book. Kihlgård’s stylish narrative bowls along, zinging with arresting imagery and incisive, throwaway observations on everyday life. A group of fluorescent-vested pre-schoolers are described as "brightly coloured, miniature camp inmates, begging him with reproachful looks to save them from the idiotic cheeriness that only nursery teachers, their cheeks rosy with integrity and caffeine, can chirrup forth". When Kicki repairs her make-up, she has "so much black around her eyes that it looked as if her irises had sprung a leak and overflowed", and as Lasse’s pulse rate rises, it pounds "like a pair of trainers in a tumble dryer". A real linguistic treat.