Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Some of us believe that John Ajvide Lindqvist is one of Europe’s most exciting writers. His troubling stories identify alien, frightening elements in the commonplace, but the reader’s fears are calmed by his grounded, observational style; the vampires and zombies are reasonable beings whose unreasonable needs are described with unemotional empathy. In Rörelsen, which we are told is autobiographical (parts of it are), he writes like a cold-hearted recording angel, always perceptive and self-contained even as events take on ever new dimensions of weirdness. He addresses the reader so confidingly that a series of slightly doctored quotes could make up a review.
As a young man, just nineteen, John ‘loved being a magician’, because magic offers ‘members of the audience moments of wonder and disbelief when they question their grip on reality’ – and, of course, when they recognise the possibility of other realities. Replace ‘audience’ with ‘readers’ and you get an early hint of what he wants to do with this book.
Alone in his shabby lodgings in central Stockholm, John works hard at his ‘moves’, listens to Depeche Mode (we’re in the 1980s) and nicks stuff from shops – mostly food and clothes and records. His childhood suburbia is history, apart from a lingering resentment and a memory of having witnessed terrible, sustained adult violence against a small child. He makes himself write this down, in an account that infiltrates reality in obscure ways. When nothing else is going on, John spies on the comings and goings in ‘his’ courtyard. Some oddly assorted neighbours turn out to share a secret concealed in the communal laundry: a tub full of pulsating black goo that craves blood and offers in return irresistible mystical transports, both spiritual and literal, in the sense of being taken to another place. John joins the adepts, sacrifices some of his blood and next finds himself aware of being on a horizon-less lawn. His awareness of self is also changed: here, he can be more profoundly and satisfyingly himself than ever before. In that open place – no boundaries, no structures – he is a shape-shifting monster, joyously and inconsequentially evil. Eventually, his neighbours also appear in bizarre manifestations of their innermost selves. This is where people are free to take unreflecting pleasure in who they truly are and thus know each other in ways that social convention and morality will not permit.
The formless matter in the tub and the joys of absolute personal liberty are both unnervingly reductive. But Ajvide Lindqvist spins a story ‘in real life’ around this mystical core: John, increasingly aware of the thrill of violence, moves on from shoplifting to robbery and grievous bodily harm. As the young man slips ever closer to embodying his monstrous, other-worldly alter ego, the goo in the tub is becoming so infused with human blood that it takes on a humanoid shape. Communicating seems impossible, but it has a will of its own: it leaves the laundry room and disappears. Soon afterwards, on 28 February 1986, the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme is killed by an unknown assassin. Once more, motiveless violence walks the dark, chilly streets of Stockholm.
As Ajvide Lindqvist tells us: ‘Inside my body, the monster is still alive [. . . ] writing stories about the monster is one way to mollify it’. However: ‘communality is the red thread running through everything I’ve told you’. A final paradox: ‘It was our longing for communality that sustained Olof Palme and that also became the agent that killed him’.
Lucid and opaque, analytical and mystical, Rörelsen is an unmissable read.