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Peter Englund, Tystnadens historia och andra essäer (A History of Silence and Other Essays)

Atlantis,  2003. ISBN: 9174867660

Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2004:2


Peter Englund occupies an almost unique position in Swedish historical writing. He is popular while at the same time being highly regarded as a historian. His books, including Poltava and Ofredsår (Years of War) have been widely read and enjoyed, even though they are carefully argued, intricate and, in actual fact, quite obscure. For example, Ofredsår is a dense, lengthy account (600 pages!) of Sweden’s warmongering in seventeenth-century Europe. Poltava is a detailed account of the destruction of Charles XII’s army in 1709. Cynics everywhere might have queued up to predict a quiet death for such books. Yet Poltava, for instance, has already been translated into seven languages, including French and English. It has sold more than 250,000 copies.
It is with some anticipation, then, that one sits down to read Englund’s Tystnadens historia och andra essäer, winner of Bonnier’s Essay Prize for 2004. One is immediately struck by Englund’s abstract approach, and his liking for improbable historical connections. This is a book that must succeed on a level of entertainment. Each of its essays is an exercise in intellectual vigour.
In A History of the Screwdriver we learn that the British succumbed to the Zulus at Isandlwana largely because their ammunition was packed into sturdy crates bound with iron bands. Nine screws had to be undone before the precious ammunition could be unpacked, and unfortunately there were only two screwdrivers in the entire British camp! In spite of frantic efforts to open the crates, the British were demonstrably overrun because of a lack of screw-drivers. This is not a commonly known fact!
In A History of the Massage Staff, later known as the vibrator, we learn that the first ever battery-driven vibrator was Swedish and manufactured in about 1875. In Ray Croc and the History of the Hamburger we find that hamburgers were successful partly as a backlash against appalling hygiene in sausage factories where rats ran freely among half-rotten meat. Croc’s McDonald’s empire, founded after the Second World War, succeeded because his hamburgers were considered cheap, modern, nutritious and hygienic! And in Errol Flynn and a History of Modern Desire, Englund analyses Flynn’s international fame in terms of the cult of hero worship. Odisseus, Achilles, Alexander, Roland and Charlemagne are all examples of classic heroes. But after the ravages of the seventeenth century, war lost some of its allure, and explorers such as Captain Cook acquired new status. Only in the twentieth century, when the world had been mapped and we lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, did we learn to love “pretend heroes”. We went into the era of post-heroism.
Englund’s book is stimulating and unexpected, although at times one may disagree with some of his findings. For instance, in A History of Boredom he suggests that boredom, while mentioned as ennui by Rabelais, was largely a nineteenth-century literary phenomenon. I would argue that English eighteenth century Restoration drama is filled to bursting with bored gentry pining for city life – opera, theatre and gaiety – while languishing in their mouldering country houses. Similarly, in his essay on Errol Flynn he chooses not to mention the cult of the anti-hero, invented by John Milton, Daniel Defoe and others. But all in all, Englund’s learning is so profuse and well presented that any objections tend to come across as sour grapes.
A History of Silence and Other Essays is an accomplished book for people interested in the history of everyday life. If translated into English it should easily find a wider readership, for there is no obvious contender here who could comfortably step into Englund’s shoes.

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