Rabén & Sjögren, 2007. ISBN: 9789129666922
Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2007:2
This anthology is one of several books published to mark the centenary of Astrid Lindgren’s birth in November 1907, focusing on her role as one of Sweden’s foremost public campaigners. However, on being asked what she meant by her children’s books, her answer was inevitably: "Meant? I didn’t mean anything at all". She wrote to amuse the child within herself. Yet during the last few decades of her life she became a campaigner on a number of issues she felt strongly about. Lindgren was virtually a one-woman green party, fighting to save the traditional countryside and her beloved trees, and campaigning for animal welfare. She was always a late starter: as a writer she was in her late thirties by the time her first book was published; and as a campaigner she was sixty-eight when she became a political journalist with the famous saga of Pomperipossa, first published in the tabloid Expressen in March, 1976, pinpointing the absurdity of the then tax system in Sweden. She was a dangerous opponent with a large public following, something the Social Democrats discovered to their cost when they duly lost the 1976 general election in the aftermath of the Pomperipossa outcry.
The title, no doubt incomprehensible to English ears, was not chosen randomly. "En liten lort" is a recurring key phrase in The Brothers Lionheart, rendered as "a little bit of filth" in the 1975 English translation. There are things that the individual must do even if they are dangerous, and if one avoids such things one is not a human being at all, just a "little bit of filth" (or even a "piece of shit"). The ethical terms are expressed in a way that, to adults, may seem rather shocking and vulgar, but Lindgren knows exactly what her young readers will immediately understand.
She always stood up for victims of injustice, oppression and violence, not least starving and suffering children all over the world. She felt rage and despair at the fate of children in war-torn countries and did what little she could to help. This strong emotional involvement was characteristic of her public campaigns from the end of the 1970s until, not surprisingly, she ran out of energy in her nineties. But emotional involvement did not mean that she entered into discussions without being fully prepared with information, as well as bringing her common sense, analytical skills, wit and humour to the table.
It is a pity that there are so few examples in this book of Lindgren’s inimitable style of writing to politicians and bureaucrats. Her huge personal archive is now being catalogued at the National Library (Kungliga Biblioteket), and will no doubt in due course materialize into a comprehensive collection of her writings as a campaigner and political journalist.
In the meantime there is the present anthology with contributions from an impressive and diverse number of people; among them a former editor-in-chief of Expressen, also several members of previous governments, academics, the present bishop of Stockholm, a former ambassador of the Soviet Union in Stockholm, a vet, and also a woman from Sri Lanka who as a child was threatened with deportation from Stockholm until Astrid Lindgren intervened. Even so, a certain amount of order has been imposed on this seemingly chaotic mixture, testimony to Lindgren’s involvement in such a great number of causes.
The final essay by the co-editor Lena Törnqvist, who is cataloguing the Lindgren archive (declared a World Heritage item by UNESCO), rounds off the anthology with a general survey of Astrid Lindgren’s main assets as a critic of social and global issues. She stresses that Lindgren did not get very involved with such issues in the early years of her writing career at the publishing house Rabén & Sjögren from 1946 onwards, in spite of the fact that she had always had a social conscience, further strengthened during the Second World War by insights into world politics afforded by her top-secret work in the intelligence service.
The final essay, "Precis så här ska det sägas" (This is Exactly the Way to Say It), provides informative analysis under headings such as "Respect for Children", "War and Peace", "Taxes and Domestic Politics", "Animals and the Environment" and "Democrat and Humanist".
Several of the contributors refer to an important speech given by Astrid Lindgren in Frankfurt in October 1978, when she was awarded the German Publishers’ Peace Prize – the speech appears in the anthology (and in English translation in this issue, pp 13-17) Recently, I came across an article by the political journalist, writer and TV presenter Andrew Marr in which he suggested that the nurture of our children might be a key ingredient which, if badly done, could lead ultimately to global conflict – a provocative comment that sums up the main point in Lindgren’s speech. Her own recipe for bringing up children was to give them love, more love and yet more love.
In time for Astrid Lindgren’s eightieth birthday the Social Democratic prime minister ensured that legislation on animal welfare in Sweden was tightened, pushing through the so-called Lex Lindgren in the wake of her campaign for improved conditions for farm animals. Unfortunately the final result was a much watered-down version of what Astrid Lindgren and her veterinary adviser had originally proposed. In her contribution this vet points out that strict bureaucratic and judicial interpretations often override the original intentions.
Closely connected with animal welfare is the fate of the small-scale farmer, the custodian of the countryside. Lindgren wrote in 1993, yet again in Expressen, that just as the farmer was becoming more eco-friendly than ever, he was threatened with extinction; and if he went, trees and brushwood would take over, meadows and pasture would be lost for ever. She firmly believed that all children ought to live in the countryside, or have their roots there in some way, in order to establish a similar, innate relationship with nature to the one that she enjoyed in her own childhood: another world, a long time ago, where no doubt she and her siblings used to play so hard, it was a wonder they did not play themselves to death.
In her writings and campaigning Astrid Lindgren has done her utmost to make sure that such underlying values live on to enrich future generations. This book is a testimony to her achievements.