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Niklas Rådström, En handfull regn (A Handful of Rain)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789100113407

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2008:2

To say that Niklas Rådström’s latest book is consistent with his other recent works sounds at best superfluous. But the case of A Handful of Rain is special: it is a literary confrontation with the fact of the suicide of a boyhood friend in the late 70s, and the book Rådström has spent thirty years not writing. Instead, over the years, he has circled recurring topics in both poetry and prose: he has recreated the lives of past writers and philosophers, re-imagined his home town, Stockholm, his life as a child and, in different forms, the absences and death of his father, a talented, celebrated maverick. Rådström’s perceptive, insistently evocative writing returns again and again to the complexities of friendship, to memory and the past, and to death.

Recently, his creativity has been startling. 2006, the year before the publication of En handfull regn (2007), saw two significant, but very different works by Rådström. The biographical novel fragment Gästen (The Guest) is about the beginning and sad end of a friendship between H. C. Andersen and Charles Dickens. The documentary play De onda (Monsters), is a soloists-and-chorus narration of how two boys tortured and killed a two-year-old (the James Bulger case). In 2004, Rådström completed a dramatic poem, or play in verse (it is hard to define) based on the Divine Comedy: Dantes gudomliga komedi. En dikt i tre akter efter Dante Alighieri. Samt en essä (Dante’s Divine Comedy. A Poem in Three Acts, after Dante Alighieri. Also an essay). This audacious and witty reworking of the original was energised by Rådström’s conviction that "Throughout our lives we conduct a never-ending dialogue with the dead [...] and with our own death". So far, so consistent – but what about 2003, with its "real life story" of bringing up a baby bluetit, until it leaves its foster family for good? Actually, for all its sweet wistfulness, complemented by charming line drawings (by Catharina Günter-Rådström), Absint. Historien om en blåmes (Absinthe. The Story of a Bluetit) contains a poignant and incisive discourse about the limitations of "love" of nature and friendship with wild creatures.

Rådström restlessly searches for insight into the Other. Near the end of the sequence of essays in A Handful of Rain, he tests out explanations of why, a lifetime ago, his best friend Bengt jumped off one of Stockholm’s huge bridges to a certain death. They were in their late twenties then, in May 1977, alike in many ways, excitable, creative and talented. They admired each other; Bengt was neither a loner, nor a loser. To Niklas, the survivor, this death not only seemed a bottomless well of grief, but also – and worse? – an impenetrable, dark enigma that he cannot leave alone. Each possible explanation begins with the same dispassionate sentences, describing how, one evening, Bengt set out for his last walk through the city. He had written a letter to his parents, saying that his life was worthless. Were the demands he made on himself over-exalted? Was he unable to like himself? Was it childhood trauma, or perhaps over-dependence on his mother, or distance from his father? Disappoint-ment with radical politics and his own ineffectualness? Lack of love? Loneliness? An ill-understood nervous breakdown? Perhaps depressive illness?

Recently, after a harrowing series of deaths among family and friends, Niklas Rådström learnt first-hand about depression and the suicidal thoughts it can bring. He wrenched himself free, helped by his own insight and a good psychiatrist. Now, there are no traces of personal fears in his discussions of suicide as an individual and as a cultural phenomenon. He might feel with Dickens as he’s described in Gästen, worn out by a day of concerns for the family of a dead friend: "In his study with its view (over the hills), surrounded by his books, he had jotted down a few notes on a sheet of paper. Just a few lines on paper, and his mind turns away from the shadowy past, towards thoughts of a future brimming with surprises and secrets."

The first half of A Handful of Rain reads like Rådström’s own version of the Dickens experience: writing, not as therapy, but as a means of transfiguring grief into joy at being alive. It is a wonderfully engaging account of boys growing up into young adulthood in a friendly little capital city. Watching over these vividly remembered figures, the author is humorous and thoughtful by turns, and packs his narrative with the kind of detail we ordinary mortals forget, but instantly and happily recognise.

Rådström writes, at the very end of the story of Absinthe the bluetit: "But we will never see him again. Despite all that our dreams and fantasies want to persuade us of, the world continually grows away from us. All growth strives towards a place where we are not."

Anna Paterson

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