Albert Bonniers förlag, 2012.
Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Fiction
Susanna Lundin has written a remarkable book. The protagonists are Bertil, an old teddy bear, and Prickly Pear, a girl on her own. They exist near the apocalypse of their world and ours. Such disasters will recur, we understand. The extinction of the dinosaurs is one example. The writer operates in the space between birth and death, whether of individuals, mankind, or the planet itself. There is little space to doubt our common fate.
Lundin tells us something significant about our lives between birth and death. Everything regarded as life experience is scrutinised. She plays with the here and now, contrasting it with our knowledge of history and literature.
Bertil and Prickly Pear are lost in life. Their one advantage is that they never suffer from preconceived ideas. Conversely, they have few defences. They reveal, unknowingly, what their lives mean. The scale of Lundin’s task is not to be underrated. For example, Bertil has lost his compass and cannot see where, in the wilderness, they are going. He starts a logbook: ‘[I]f we write down how we go we should be OK.’ But there are no signposts.
The imminent destruction of humans and the Earth is foretold by a cycle of physical and spiritual changes. The Earth faces obliteration by an earthquake or erupting volcanoes. Lava is bubbling forth faster, threatening Bertil’s favourite peony in the garden.
This peony survived the Hindenburg disaster years ago, above Bertil’s croft in the forest. He called his house Hindenburg in remembrance and buried airship debris under his favourite peony. That way the victims lived again in the plant. New life grew out of death. The peony acquired a fragrance of both sweetness and melancholy. It is a symbol of life, perseverance and beauty, a beauty often best seen at dusk or in the morning mist.
Bertil and Prickly Pear live independently if together. Given a dysfunctional world, they take care to speak cautiously to each other. Their relationship is pinpointed in a poem about wood anemones:
So they live side by side only for a very short time. Side by side, inside a short piece of history.
This speaks, perhaps, of desolation.
Using a ‘stream of consciousness’ technique Lundin writes about the memories and dreams in her protagonists’ interpretations of reality. She deliberately confronts them with time-lapses, repetitions and contradictions that invite deliberations without conclusions. The last page is headed ‘The First Day’!
To grip the reader Lundin uses a shock method. She challenges the reader to take notice, e.g. of the representation of the human body – dead or alive, or just asleep. You read ‘the skin is the largest organ in our bodies’. We are told ‘it can be prised open with the hands to lift the heart out’. The heart is discoloured when outside the body and has a funny smell. The organ can then safely be put back and the skin joined together with studs. All this causes no surprise.
It is normal to recognise the heart as the seat of emotions, not just a machine. The peony’s fragrance is ‘the rarest of them all’, says Bertil. It goes ‘straight to the heart and can stop or start it of its own volition’. There are no rules – the heart will respond to the fragrance directly or it will have a surprise effect, the opposite of what you expected.
‘What fragrance is it?’ (Prickly Pear writes in the logbook). ‘You’ll know when you meet it’, says Bertil.
A final description of the effect of this peony is in Lundin’s italics: it has to wither before it comes into full bloom. It must end. But those who have smelt it once will never forget.