Ordfront, 2010. ISBN: 9789170374234
Reviewed by Margaret Dahlström in SBR 2010:2
The tradition of Swedish worker literature is currently in revival and this book continues that revival. Set in a car factory, it allows the issues faced by the characters mirror those of the broader contemporary society, while also foregrounding concerns specific to industrial workplaces. Maria Hamberg has experience of factory life, having herself been employed in a car factory and other industries.There is nothing to suggest that any part of this novel is her own story, but it does come across as a narrative with its basis in reality. As the title suggests, the novel gives considerable weight to dreams: what the characters imagine their lives could be, and how they try to achieve their ideals.The dreams are in a very real sense a direct production of the factory; the monotony of the work and the very limited possibilities for variety or advancement are a breeding ground for dreams and wishes. There is no protagonist. Instead, we see many characters on the assemblyline, and a number of them take turns in the spotlight. Hamberg alternates scenes from their home lives with accounts of the factory routine. The loneliness of some, the stress of failing relationships, instances of racism and sexism, all take on new significance when seen in the context of what to the characters is ultimately a fairly meaningless occupation. Continuity of production is pursued by management at all costs.The novel both opens and ends with a death. A small accident on the production floor becomes fatal when the workers are instructed, contrary to all their firstaid training, to move the injured man so that the work can go on.Towards the end an older employee, who has been in the factory for most of his working life, suffers a heart attack.The manager is displeased when news of the man’s death leaks out early in the day; it could have waited until later, he says, so that output would not have been affected. Impressing visitors takes priority over the conditions of the workers. When men in suits are shown through the factory, they are not to get the impression of an overly casual work force, so radios, for example, are banned. But it escapes even management’s notice that the sign ‘Welcome to Alcatraz’, erected by some of the workers above their timeclock, remains in place. It merges with the general gloom of the environment. The attempts of a number of employees to find alternative work are unsuccessful, and they face the foreseeable future on the assembly line. The reader does not engage closely with individual characters as they move in and out of focus, but is drawn to the interaction of the group and its shifting dynamics.What is most noticeable is what is missing: a happy or even a satisfied worker. The cast of characters and their rotation in the narrative focus give the novel a variety that contrasts with the repetitious factory tasks. Unlikely friendships are formed here, but the sense of solidarity is shaky. The employees support each other against the management up to a point, but ultimately each one finds it necessary to put his/her own interests first because of fear – of repercussions from management, of the judgements and opinions of others, and most of all fear of unemployment. So there is never total trust between them; everyone has secrets and everyone has doubts about the reliability of the others. The narrative point of view is that of the workers.While none of them serves as narrator, we are shown incidents as they affect the employees, and only occasionally see from the perspective of a manager. When we do, we see that he, too, is dissatisfied with his work and uneasy about his future. It is a pessimistic book. Conditions and attitudes which most readers probably assume are long gone are here depicted as alive and well, sometimes defeating and always affecting the workers on the receiving end.The narrative covers some years: it is written in three main parts; the first two are separated by only a few months but the last section is set some years later. And the reader – as well as the employees – sees that little changes over that period and what does change is rarely for the better. By suggesting what might have been for these characters, and showing the strategies they use to deal with the banality of their work, Hamberg extracts considerable human interest from what seems an unlikely subject for a novel. Whatever it tells the reader about big corporations, globalisation of industry, and the powerlessness or even indifference of the union movement, the novel would be discouraging to any reader considering a career on an assembly line.