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Jerker Virdborg, Försvinnarna: en efterforskning (The Disappearers: An Investigation)

Norstedts,  2005. ISBN: 9113013823

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2005:2

This novel, if we can call such a hybrid book a novel, opens with some stark official statistics: since 1965, a total of 176,164 individuals have been reported missing in Sweden. Of these, 21,492 have never been found. The book’s Stockholm-based narrator Jerker, a writer who may or may not be identical with the author, discovers through a chance meeting that one of his old school friends, Henrik, has disappeared. He decides to investigate the case, by talking to the police, to Henrik’s family, colleagues and friends. He cuts himself off from his own family without explanation and books into a hostel for the duration. As he pursues the project, memories and scenes from boyhood come into his mind, seemingly inconsequential glimpses of everyday conversations and pranks which none-theless have a strangely unsettling quality about them. Jerker’s random quest takes him to places where Henrik worked and studied, and back to the Gothenburg housing estate of their boyhood, but he seems singularly ill at ease with his self-appointed detective role; his dogged pursuit of any slim lead is in strange contrast to the embarrassment and ennui that descend on him whenever he is questioning anyone. He is under pressure from his partner Åsa, who wants him back home, and his editor, repeatedly calling about an imminent deadline for two articles. The days go by, and Jerker starts to feel physically unwell as he draws a disconcerting blank everywhere; no one has any clear memories of Henrik, his views or actions or possible motives for disappearing. A notebook in Henrik’s flat containing some enigmatic jottings raises fresh hopes, but ultimately leads nowhere. This is a story that never lets its reader relax. An air of suburban menace hangs over the story: gangs of youths on bikes used to hound Jerker and his friends when they strayed to the wrong side of the river; the boys themselves took reckless risks by railway lines and treacherous ponds; a group of smalltown thugs make an unprovoked attack on the adult Jerker as he is walking back to his lodgings one night. Even in very ordinary places, like a bustling market square, Jerker’s attention is always drawn to mysterious doors, manholes and other escape or access points that most of us in our busy lives have ceased to see. Here the book shows signs of having grown out of Virdborg’s short story “In” from Landhöjning två centimeter per natt (2001). He has made it his speciality to place his protagonists in hostile, unnerving situations over which they have no control, like the secret commando mission in his last novel Svart krabba (2002). The Disappearers contains two long sections outwardly unrelated to the central investigation: the first about an ambitious project, later cancelled in a more environmentally aware era, to build a vast, utopian Stockholm suburb in the countryside, complete with metro connection; the other about the warren of public safety shelters beneath the streets of the capital. We are asked to believe that these are the reports for which Jerker’s editor is waiting, but they are far from being documentary journalism. They are coloured by personal emotions and reactions, and infused with the rueful reminiscences of his two cicerones, the elderly male architect of the proposed new town, and the female information officer who has devoted her working life to Stockholm’s now deteriorating subterranean labyrinth. She tells him that Sweden today has almost 70,000 secure shelters for the protection of its citizens in case of attack, but that ominously there are no clear plans for how and when people will be able to leave them afterwards. Back in the main plot, the novel remains like life: messily unresolved. In a final scene, towards which tension has mounted to such a degree that the reader is imagining all kinds of denouements (a hidden body, a secret assignation, the narrator’s own disappearance?), Jerker wriggles as far as he can into a narrow duct leading from some factory, which he and his friends had discovered as boys, and spray paints on its wall a valedictory “We were here”. A memorial to his missing friend, to whose disappearance he must now resign himself? As the police officer on Henrik’s case tells Jerker, we sometimes have to accept that people don't always want to be found.

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