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Göran Sahlberg, När tiden tog slut (When Time Was No More)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789100113070

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2008:2

This exuberant yet wistful novel with its vivid, tragic-comic account of a very unusual childhood evokes an era when Sweden felt it stood centre-stage in the world, by virtue of Dag Hammarskjöld being Secretary-General of the UN. Hammarskjöld is one of the all-Swedish heroes of our narrator, an unnamed boy growing up in the small town of Nyckelberget in the 1950s. The boy’s mother, who thinks we should enjoy each day as it comes, is determined he will have A Modern Upbringing and Healthy Habits. She feeds him vitamins, dresses him in shorts and sends him out to play in the fresh air. But she is thwarted in her good intentions by the boy’s idolisation of his father, a fervent hellfire preacher who spends his weekdays bashing out rousing sermons on his typewriter. He sometimes finds it hard to suppress his frivolous sense of humour, outbursts which leave both him and the boy consumed with guilt. Sundays are spent travelling to preach all round the region. In scenes prompting associations to Ingmar Bergman’s Laterna Magica and Max Sebald’s Austerlitz, the boy accompanies his father on these trips, first on a Vespa and later in a borrowed Mercedes. The charming gullibility of the child’s eye view, the boy’s reverence for his seemingly all-knowing father and indeed the whole tone are, for me, reminiscent of Marcel Pagnol’s wonderful, autobiographical La gloire de mon père.

From the age of six, the boy determines to follow a religious calling himself. He preaches to his uncomprehending playmate, always ending with the exhortation, "My friend, where will you spend Eternity?" Given an old typewriter of his own, he takes to writing funeral orations, starting with one for Viola, the friendly, young cashier at the local shop, who shares his enthusiasm for Dag Hammarskjöld and is still very much alive.

But the boy’s horizon is increasingly filled with a sense of impending doom, both nuclear and Biblical. The new flats in Nyckelberget have been built with basement shelters, in case Hammarskjöld fails to placate the Russians. Armageddon is an everyday concept in the home: father and son believe their lives are mapped out for them on the wall chart "God’s Plan Through the Ages" (copyright 1934, Pastor C. A. Chader). This hand-drawn, multicoloured chronology of potential paths to Heaven and Hell, helpfully reproduced for the reader on the inside covers of the book, ultimately promises "Ingen tid skall vara mer" (Time shall be no more).

Mother, who is expecting another baby, decides the boy needs more fresh air and confiscates his typewriter ribbon. He is devastated and spends months plotting to shin up the lamppost outside their flat and swing from it until she relents. On the fatal day he puts the plan into action, she is dancing in the kitchen to the radio and the roar of the vacuum cleaner. Her resentful son is under his bed, mentally preparing himself as he plays around with a nail and a slingshot.

So when a tragic accident happens and Mother slumps to the floor with a nail in her eye, the oblivious boy heads off for his abortive ascent of the lamppost. Apocalyptic-looking storm clouds gather, and he returns home full of foreboding to find the flat locked. The medical emergency has obliged his parents to leave him without explanation, and he naturally assumes they have been taken up to Christ, leaving him and all the other sinners to undergo the Time of Tribulation. Viola, who lives in the flat upstairs, looks after him, but she is better at feelings than at words, and assumes he knows where his parents are. The truncated messages she passes on are ambivalent enough for the boy to remain convinced that the wall chart’s prophecy has been fulfilled. He is rather surprised to find that everyone seems to be enduring the Time of Tribulation much as they lived their normal lives.

Viola takes the boy with her on holiday to her family home in Skåne, mainly because she knows Dag Hammarskjöld has a summer cottage in the area. When Hammarskjöld himself comes on the scene, the plot becomes even more surreal. To further her (futile, as it turns out) romantic hopes, Viola gets the boy involved with the Hammarskjöld household. He helps out on a fishing trip, opens sacks of fan mail and joins a "UN mission" against the moles in the great man’s lawn. A letter arrives from Father to say Mother and the baby are dead, and he is "sick". The boy feels guilty that Father has had to hang around on Earth for his sake, just because he promised to try to do so. He and Viola are to visit his father in an Uppsala mental hospital and since Hammarskjöld has to drive north, he gives them a lift. He even accompanies the boy into the hospital, where his emaciated, bird-like, wheelchair-bound father does not recognise him.

The boy remains with Viola, life and school go on, and the wall chart’s influence fades. Father dies a few years later, his son inheriting his wedding ring and his unused typewriter ribbons. Closure finally comes when the news of Hammarskjöld’s death in a plane crash reaches Sweden: at long last, Viola and the boy have a frank talk about the nail that fatally pierced Mother’s eye, and everything else that has happened.

Despite the underlying tragedy, there is great humour to be had from the novel’s many farcical episodes, such as the boy inadvertently stealing his own birthday bicycle and throwing it in the river; and Viola, clad in an embarrassing home-made bikini, rescuing Hammarskjöld when he is mobbed by curious locals and pressmen. There have been rumblings among Swedish reviewers that the author has tried too hard to write his own version of Göran Tunström’s 1983 classic Juloratoriet (Christmas Oratorio). But with its varied gallery of characters, unpredictable plot, charmingly retro feel and linguistic originality, When Time Was No More is a fresh, compelling read in its own right.

Sarah Death

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