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Maja Lundgren, Mäktig Tussilago (Powerful Coltsfoot)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2010. ISBN: 9789100124403

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2010:2

It is difficult to read Maja Lundgren’s new novel without being strongly aroused by it. When is a novel a novel? Mäktig Tussilago is a work of fiction of 156 pages, divided into 25 unnumbered, untitled chapters, grouped in two parts. There is a great deal of dialogue, some monologue; there is narrative, verse, and frequent spaces of varying lengths and purposes, creating mini-subchapters. Speech comes in many forms, along with interior monologue, free indirect and flow-of-consciousness thought. As attention shifts between characters, or groups of characters, the pathwork of discourse may thus appear incoherent. The author claims to be inspired by Menippean satire, and her latest work, with its fragmentary style and time-flow changes, fits into this Mikado-game genre of fiction. Reading it, my first reaction was: ‘How can she possibly get away with this?! How can she call this a novel?’ The second time, I had to capitulate: there is a narrative, and some of the prose is both stimulating and imaginative. The dialogue is shocking, amusing, lively, and occasionally brilliant, providing a panorama of middle-class Stockholm mafia talk. One irritating feature was to be given the names of people, but no description. The story focuses on Oscar Riktelius, a well-meaning but helpless new-age man and father of two small children, who has invited friends to a dinner party. He wants to marry his partner Katarina, but she leaves him on the morning of the party, taking their children with her to her parents. She has had enough of poverty and making do, of receiving a bit of rain-forest as a birthday gift and half a goat as a Christmas present. She can’t afford to buy a new dress and is tired of wearing cast-offs. She is artistic and has made some fine glassware. She loves beauty and elegance and longs for a large garden with deer roaming in it. Truth is, their flat doesn’t even have a balcony. At the beginning of the book we find Oscar in hospital. He has had a nervous breakdown during the party and the psychiatrist, Mister Hur Har Vi Det Här Då (Mr How-Are-WeFeeling-Now-Then), to whom he and the narrator subsequently often refer simply as Mister, tries to help Oscar retrieve his memory. A kind, impractical, idealistic man, Oscar studied anthropology and religion, wrote his dissertation on Doideag of Mull and two other Scottish witches, and wanted to go on and do a PhD. But he had also been a member of a punk band called Kill Kurtz (an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness perhaps) and is obsessed with Rosemary Kennedy, John Kennedy’s promiscuous, lobotomised sister. He earns a living as carer to an invalid woman, Rosmarie, who has speech difficulties and has probably been abused in some way. The dinner party offers a fascinating sample of conversation topics amongst contemporary intellectual Swedish society. Oscar’s neighbour Lemmy turns up dressed like a Native American. He is worried about the demise of the blond and blue-eyed Swede because of the invasion of immigrants: ‘We will end up as Indians in our own country.’ Feminism versus male domination is discussed, but kind, gentle Oscar is not really appreciated. However, he is not the only impractical idealist. One of the women at the party, Victoria, and other feminists want more Swedish men to fight in Afghanistan – to free the Afghan women. Many assertions are delivered like slogans: ‘Our time is myopic – you can at the most compare today with yesterday but not with the day before yesterday’; ‘Today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s toilet paper’; ‘We must agree that there is no truth’. And Oscar’s own neat: ‘Life is a Mikado stick’. In the end, Lemmy helps Oscar to escape from the hospital. As Oscar has inherited money from a distant relative he can travel round Europe and ends up in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris with a bag lady. There he dies, and the tragi-comedy comes to an end, too. After reading Mäktig Tussilago a second time, I must admit that it has grown on me. Swedish critics, on the whole, have praised it, though, like me, some find it fragmentary and surreal. Sara Danius, reviewing the work in Dagens Nyheter,wrote that it ‘moves between fantasy and reality. The story, if one can really talk about a story, takes place here, there and everywhere, but most of all between the lines. The problem is not what the book says but what it doesn’t say’. Some readers, for this reason alone, may find it intriguing. As for the title, Tussilago (farfara) is the wild flower coltsfoot, so named on account of its hoof-shaped leaf. It is also known in Britain by at least nine other names, including horsefoot (cf hästhov and hästhovsört). The title is taken from the verse in which the phrase occurs, both words having initial capitals. The plant, with its sulphur-yellow blooms, grows on Oscar’s grave.

Also by Maja Lundgren

  • Pompeji (Pompeii). Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2001:2.

Other reviews by Anna-Lisa Murrell

Other reviews in SBR 2010:2

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