Translated and Introduced by Fiona Graham
This article appeared in the 2014:2 issue.
Born in 1974, Jens Liljestrand grew up in Mozambique and Sweden. During his university years in Lund he played an active role in the student musical scene, a curiously incestuous milieu which he delineates with the penetrating eye of an anthropologist in his 2011 novel Adonis.
His literary career got under way with two books of reportage, one of which dealt with the scouting movement as a locus of middle-class aspirations. In 2008 his fiction debut Paris-Dakar, from which this story is taken, won a literary prize awarded by Vi magazine, which praised his ‘heart-wrenching, startling stories in which, deploying language of an unerring precision along with black humour, he depicts the confusion of the contemporary Swedish male’.
Liljestrand’s stories skilfully combine suspense and the surreal with close observation of the perversities of modern life. He displays a striking talent for depicting unpleasant and often downright unsavoury characters who exercise an unsettling hold on the reader’s imagination.
‘Mellanområdet’ (Transitional Space) is set on a remote island where a group of upper-middle-class boys with various personality disorders have been sent for an unorthodox form of therapy. The project is led by Bure, a retired military man, assisted by Louis. The narrator – an expert in the psychology of disturbed children – favours participatory observation as his main research method.
It quickly emerges that the clash of competing egos is bound to take on dangerous proportions. As in Liljestrand’s other work, however, reality is multi-layered, and nothing is as it seems at first.
Both Sandell (1977, pp. 213-271) and Nilsson (1993, pp. 49-60) underline the importance of physical activity outdoors for the cognitive and social development of the child. Not only is acquiring the basic skills to keep ‘warm, dry, well-fed and in good spirits’ a sine qua non for expeditions of any length into forested or open terrain, but, by extension, it is also a potential means of fostering self-esteem, awareness, responsibility and groundedness in the individual – characteristics which may be summed up by the term ‘empowerment’. Ambivalent though my views on many aspects of the pedagogical approach underlying the Daversö Project may be, I do see advantages in the idea of using outdoor activities as a tool to help neuropsychiatrically or socially handicapped children develop.
‘We’ll need a hammer, saw, nails and rope,’ I tell Bure.‘Plus some planks. Think you can organise that?’
Bure looks dubious, but Louis’s face lights up.
‘Course we can, I’ll get everything together. How many planks?’
Louis and I go into the forest with the children traipsing after us. We stick to the path for a while, then turn off it and head southwards, towards the overgrown, rocky side of the island. Just thirty to forty steps away from the path, and we’re surrounded by wilderness. Ash and lime trees, interspersed with the occasional spruce, form a dense canopy of foliage.The ground is carpeted with mosses and lichens, together with blue anemones and crowberries.To my amazement I also register a number of rare plants which I take to be protected species, including chaffy sedge, lax-flowered sea lavender and sea bluebells.Thanks to the fifty years for which this has been a nature reserve – and minimal exposure to human activity even before that – a unique range of flora has been preserved here.
The evening sun breaks through the branches. In here among the trees it remains dank and chilly.The ground exudes an odour of damp leaves, rain- soaked bark and soil.
‘Do we have to walk much further?’ whines Kalle, bringing up the rear.
‘My legs are hurting.’
We’ve covered about two hundred metres since leaving the Workshop. The other children are silent. Edward and Nicholas walk hand in hand. Peter, grimacing stoically, is balancing a large pile of planks on one shoulder. Johan and Måns are talking and giggling about something or other.
‘Ah, this’ll do fine,’ decides Louis, dropping the tools next to a tall, slender fir with thick branches starting about two metres up.
I let him take the decision, though the spot is not a particularly good choice, given the delicate flora.
‘Fine,’ I say.‘Who’s the lightest?’
‘Him!’ yells Måns, pointing at Kalle, who barely moves a muscle.
‘Good, then the rest of you can help him up the tree.’
‘Noooh…’ wavers Kalle, shrinking away, but Peter gets a firm grip on him. Weaving their hands together, he and Måns more or less shove the little lad up into the lowest branches.
‘Noooooh…’ cries Kalle again, terror in his face.
‘You’ll be fine,’ I say. ‘Grab hold of the branches and get yourself settled up there.Well done! Now it’s Edward’s turn.’
While Kalle crawls up into the branches, the other children help Edward, whimpering softly, to get a grip on the resinous trunk and haul himself up. Kalle fumbles for his hand and helps him up the last stretch. Soon each boy is sitting on a branch of his own, both clinging for dear life to the trunk.
‘I want to go down!’ whinges Edward pathetically.‘Get me down!’
‘Let’s use ‘em for target practice!’ yells Peter, stooping to gather up fir cones.
‘No, you take hold of this,’ I say, handing him the rope. ‘Throw it up to them, and make sure Kalle ties it round that thick branch. Måns, you and Nicholas can work together to cut the planks to the right length.They need to be the same height as you. Johan, you…’
The boy is squatting with his finger up his nose, gawping at a grey boulder.
His mouth is half-open, his eyes dull and vacant.
‘We don’t have to build anything, do we?’ says Nicholas, fingering the saw blade with distaste.‘We don’t know how.’
‘What do you do then?’
‘Oh, play, and that sort of thing.You know, draw, play computer games…’
‘Get me down!’ whinges Edward from up the tree.‘You lot are murdering me!’
‘Kalle, you wanker, will you catch that fucking rope for once!’ screams Peter, flinging the rope end for the third time at the branch where Kalle is perched, hugging the trunk.The thick rope end flicks his puckered little face; his eyes are screwed shut.
‘We don’t use that sort of language here!’ says Louis officiously, casting an anxious glance my way.
‘Kalle, keep your eyes on the rope, it won’t bite you,’ I say. ‘Johan, come here now.’
There’s no need to tell him. He’s already standing next to me, silent and hermetic, probing his ear with a finger.
‘Johan, I want you to do something now. We’re going to sing a song together, you and me – a song about the forest, while the others get on with the building. Can you do that?’
‘Don’t know any,’ he mutters.
‘Yes, you do, Johan. You know lots of songs. You know every Swedish Eurovision entry since the year dot off by heart. Come on now, I’ll help you. Take your finger out of your ear.’
Up in the tree the rope end smacks Kalle in the face again, harder this time, and he shrieks.
Louis heaves a sigh.
‘Maybe it’s time we…’
‘Come on,sing,’ I say again,putting my arm around Johan.‘Let’s bloody well sing!’
I feel his back and shoulders tense under my arm, as he draws a deep breath.
‘In the forest shades I waaalk alone, Longing for a friend to caaall my own!
He sings in a throbbing vibrato. Although he is in mid-puberty, and you’d expect his voice to be breaking, I hear the voice of a full-grown man.
‘Good,’ I whisper,‘that’s really great.’
Peter swears and tosses the rope up again. Kalle flails around and manages to catch it,though his eyes remain stubbornly closed.
‘Now you have to tie a bowline,’ says Edward suddenly.‘I know how, we learnt last summer on Grandpa’s boat. Give it here.’
Taking the rope, he ties a knot with unexpected skill where the branch is thickest, next to the trunk.
‘Tears run down my cheeks, my heart beats fast, Ne’er can I forget the friend I’ve lost,
Ne’er can I forgeeet! the friend I’ve looost!’
Måns lays a plank over a rotting log and begins to saw with such enthusiasm that he makes the sawdust fly. Nicholas steps cautiously onto the plank to hold it steady. Johan sings his heart out, intensely focused, giving a memorable rendition of Jussi Björling’s best-loved ballad that, while it might leave something to be desired aesthetically, could scarcely be faulted for sincerity and emotional power.
I sing with Johan, sing until I’m hoarse: Evert Taube and Carl Michael Bellman and Cornelis Vreeswijk, then via Povel Ramel we move on to Hasse ‘n’ Tage, and the Galenskaparna and barbershop quartet After Shave – the lad has the whole popular canon by heart. Peter climbs up the rope and Måns passes up the freshly sawn planks, which the boys in the tree nail to the branches. Once they’ve got started properly, things move fast.
‘Respect!’ bawls Peter, banging in nail after nail, whacking them so hard that tree and foliage shudder and rustle.
The other kids seem less frightened now. They’re sitting or lolling about on the planks that are already in place, swinging their legs, looking around curiously; it’s clearly the first time up a tree for many of them.The planks come to an end, and I help the last kids up into the tree. Johan has stopped singing and sunk back into his semi-autistic state. Once he’s up in the tree- house, he clings to a branch and closes his eyes, looking comically like a koala bear.
‘I want to go down! I want to go back now!’ cries Kalle suddenly.
‘But Kalle,’ I try,‘let’s sit up in the tree-house for a bit now, shall we? It’s really cool to have your own tree-house, isn’t it?’
‘No it’s not. My back’s aching. Building tree-houses gives you backache.’
‘In a little while, Kalle, we can…’
‘Leave the kid alone – can’t you hear he’s got backache!’ breaks in Louis, who, surprisingly, has managed to keep a low profile up to now.
‘How the hell can he have backache – all he’s doing is sitting up there?’
‘Can’t you at least try not to swear?’ sighs Louis, walking over to the tree.
He reaches up, catches hold of Kalle’s wriggling legs, and helps him down.
The foliage shakes and rustles. Måns has climbed higher up the tree, a good ten metres off the ground.
‘I can see a hut over there!’ he squeals excitedly, pointing towards the south.‘Can’t we go and have a look?’
‘Come on down everyone, we’re going home now,’ says Louis, sounding stressed.
I make one last attempt.
‘For God’s sake,Louis,Kalle’s symptoms are psychosomatic,and you know it – the sensations of pain he feels are psycho-socially conditioned, and the only way for him to come to terms with them is to learn little by little to face up to precisely this sort of situation.If you just give in to him all the time,he’ll let these pain stimuli control him, until one day he ends up in an apathetic state, not even able to get out of bed – a complete invalid. I’ve seen kids like that, and it wasn’t a pretty sight, so please…’
‘I can see a hut!’ shouts Måns again.
‘Come on, lads, time to go home now!’ shouts Louis to the other boys in the tree.
No reply. There’s a slight rustling sound from the branches; maybe it’s just the wind.
‘Peter, Måns! Come down now, it’ll be getting dark soon!’
A hammer plummets down with great force, striking a fallen branch that’s dangerously near Louis’s feet. He leaps aside. Kalle lets out a sudden shriek and bursts into tears.
Peter’s gleeful voice is hoarse with excitement.
‘Come up and get us, ya fucker!’