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Ola Larsmo, Jag vill inte tjäna (I Do Not Wish to Serve)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2009. ISBN: 9789100120856

Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2009:2

‘Swedish nineteenth century history is blurred because of a mental shadow’, writes Ola Larsmo in an extensive, enlightening and thought-provoking article in the daily newspaper Dagens nyheter in March 2009. Larsmo believes that the novel can be an effective vehicle for tackling painful conflicts, cover-ups and scandals in ‘the recent past.’ He mentions a few titles from other countries but finds comparatively few by Swedish authors.

And so, a month later, his own contribution to the genre appears. Jag vill inte tjäna is about misogyny and prostitution seen through the eyes of a physician in nineteenth-century Uppsala.

‘"Are you the doctor, sir?" He had nothing to say to her this first morning. He didn’t understand then that she had been waiting there for him for hours perhaps. She was looking beyond him, up to the low, hanging sky.’

The opening pages of Larsmo’s novel are indicative of his book as a whole. The intriguing uncertainty, fear, despair and the evasive usage of personal pronouns are components in this grim Uppsala story from the 1880s. How-ever, a fair account of this book about appalling cruelty to women and girls in ‘the recent past’ would be difficult to accomplish in a brief book review.

Sara Kristina is fourteen and in the spring she will be confirmed in the Swedish church. A woman has offered to help her find work in a home where she would be in service, at least for the summer. Overcome by memories of being told to be tolerant towards those who harm us during a recent discussion of the Lord’s Prayer in church, Sara Kristina hesitates before eventually deciding that ‘I do not wish to serve.’

Not only has the author connected with the title of the novel very early in the story, he has also set the sombre tone that prevails throughout the book.

The young couple, Doctor Stig Ekeberg and his wife Ellen, have recently settled in Uppsala where Stig has been appointed assisting town medical officer, a big and flattering step for the recent graduate. Stig is to assist Doctor Petersen ‘with tangible matters’, as he puts it, referring to the regular examinations of prostitutes, women and girls in Uppsala – ‘such matters as people don’t talk about.’

Gradually, the clandestine but commonplace practice of prostitution and its victims become the focus of Doctor Ekeberg’s overshadowing commitment. The young physician is inexperienced but sensitive, compassionate, honest and driven by his own convictions. The morality issues of the time – alcohol, poverty, large families and prostitution – are cleverly touched upon in scenes describing the small, private family circle. One view defends prostitution as an enterprise enabling poor university students to find valuable knowledge and insight ‘in the arms of the public women’, thereby limiting the number of unwanted children! Doctor Ekeberg gains a more sinister insight into the activities of medical students in this respect, and treats some of these poor, destitute and traumatised women in his own surgery. The doctor’s humanitarian work isolates him socially. His wife struggles to understand and in the end one is left with the impression that she has accepted and understood her husband’s sombre but devoted social work.

With its often graphically detailed prose this is an important book. The author has successfully demonstrated that the novel can serve as a vehicle to bring suppressed, sensitive realities from ‘the recent past’ to life.

‘Departed from the city in July. Further circumstances unknown’, is Doctor Ekeberg’s brief and sad final note on Sara Kristina.

Also by Ola Larsmo

  • Swede Hollow. Reviewed by Kate Lambert in SBR 2016:2.
  • Förrädare (Traitors). Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2013:2.
  • Maroonberget (Maroon Mountain). Reviewed by Peter Hogg in SBR 1997:1.

Other reviews by Stig Olsson

Other reviews in SBR 2009:2

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