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Jerker Virdborg, Kall feber (Cold Fever)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2009. ISBN: 9789100123536

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2010:1

Virdborg is back, with an engrossing, fast-paced, deeply unsettling dystopian tale, set in an unspecified present or near future, in a vast medical science research institute in the middle of nowhere. The Establishment is a faceless research machine, churning out data to help the pharmaceutical industry make fatter profits, and clamping down ferociously on any findings that offer humankind a lasting cure for any illness. The functioning of the installation is entirely reliant on the wellbeing and work capacity of its research scientists, and the leadership has developed refined systems for motivating and controlling them. Into the smooth-running Establishment machine comes a successful, obsessive-compulsive, prestige-hungry young haematology researcher, Karin Ryd. Jubilant at landing such a sought-after job at her age, she is soon deflated by humiliating workplace initiation rites, and the limited resources and comparatively basic accommodation routinely offered to new arrivals to test their mettle. Karin resorts to sabotage of a colleague’s experiments in order to win more of the departmental budget, but is seen in the act by three teenagers, who like to escape their shut-in lives in search of adventure in little-used basements and culverts. Children are not really supposed to exist in the complex, but even indispensable scientists can accidentally procreate. Surely considering herself the unlikeliest of allies with these agents of chaos in a strictly ordered empire, Karin is essentially blackmailed into helping them plan a crazy scheme to liberate the stuffed animal specimens in the Establishment’s ‘museum’ and take them over the perimeter fence to freedom in the woods. There is initial mutual distrust between Karin and her boss Ann Frisén, and Karin makes it her business to investigate Frisén’s clandestine research project, in which she is very close to a breakthrough in the development of a ‘universal blood’ for use by all. Meanwhile, there is an outbreak at the complex of a strange, virus-like illness, the only apparent symptom of which is a lowered temperature. Karin’s colleague Maniche falls victim to it, and the way she is treated by the doctors in the weeks that follow arouses Karin’s suspicions that the epidemic of ‘cold fever’ is running out of control and could pose a serious threat to the Establishment’s future. The leadership tries desperately to hush it up. But how to judge who are the goodies and who are the baddies here? Blinded by her own professional ambition and vanity, Karin fatally picks the wrong side. The epidemic of cold fever spreads rapidly, the illness turns out to lead not only to lack of conformity and obedience, but also eventually to premature death, and the authorities, panicking, impose total quarantine, post armed guards at all exits and cut off external communications. The leadership itself is decimated and in disarray, as its edifice topples. In final scenes with troubling echoes of death-camp images, thousands of people are herded into the open air so a complete sanitisation of the complex can take place. Karin, exhausted and unhinged, and now known to the leadership as a prime troublemaker, faces a bleak future whatever happens. But there is one glimmer of hope: the stuffed animals may have disintegrated as they were ‘rescued’, but they short-circuited the electric fence, and one of the teenagers escaped. Karin spies him running to safety in the distance. The author says he was inspired in part by the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and acknowledges an even larger debt to Karin Boye’s dystopian classic Kallocain (1940), in which research scientist Leo Kall, resident of the authoritarian Chemistry City No. 4, is faced with an overwhelming ethical dilemma when called on to test a new drug. Perhaps we, in our self-indulgent, infantilised, CCTV-supervised world of global pharmaceutical conglomerates and other multinationals, should read this as a cautionary tale. What I can’t understand, says one of the leaders at the end, is how gullible everyone is, and why there hasn’t been a riot long before this. The Establishment’s workers are kept occupied in their leisure time by shopping malls, gyms, cinemas, night clubs, jogging tracks, and an internal TV channel with game shows galore. Plus lots and lots of food and drink: gourmet home cooking ingredients to buy, company dining halls and a constant supply of tempting snacks provided in the workplace. Does any of this sound familiar? Kall feber is a sparkling return to accessible storytelling after the slight over-mystification of Virdborg’s last two novels. He is right back on the form that produced the eerily memorable Svart krabba (2002; Black Crab), which has been translated into seven languages and is under consideration for film rights in the USA. This new book, too, is great film material.

Sarah Death

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