Reviewed by Agnes Broome in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
This is the story of a time and a place.
The things told in this story did happen.
They happened here, in this city, in these neighbourhoods, among the people who make their lives here.
The things told in this story keep happening today, they happen all the time.
Telling the story becomes a kind of duty.
A way of honouring and grieving and remembering
Of fighting forgetfulness with memory.
Jonas Gardell’s new novel, Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar, is the first part of a planned trilogy set in the 1980s and the looming AIDS epidemic. Subtitled Love (to be followed during 2013 by Sickness and Death), it revolves around two young men, Rasmus and Benjamin. Rasmus has just finished school and moved from a rural backwater to Stockholm and a new life as a metropolitan gay man. Benjamin is a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness, white hope of his family and rising star within his church. The two men meet on a snowy Christmas Eve at the home of Paul, an outrageously eccentric ‘mother’ figure who is in the habit of taking in young gay men in need of warmth and guidance as they find their way through an inhospitable world.
Though Torka aldrig tårar... is in some ways a departure from Gardell’s recent work, it will nevertheless be reassuringly familiar to his regular readers. Indeed, the book comes across as an amalgam of the many styles and themes Gardell has employed during his long and varied writing career. The book is part fictional narrative, part personal monologue, part documentary. The narrative strength of Gardell’s early novels, such as En komikers uppväxt (Bringing up a Comedian, 1992), meets the comical hyper-realism of such dramatic works as Mormor gråter (Granny Is Crying, 1993) and merges with the religious philosophising seen in more recent books.
Gardell, who grew up in a devotedly Baptist household, uses religious imagery deftly to provide much of the emotional resonance of Torka aldrig tårar... . Thus, the young homosexual men who, like Rasmus, flock to Stockholm from small towns all over Sweden, resemble ‘The patriarch Abraham who departed and left everything behind’. Unlike Abraham, however, all their promised land amounts to is filthy urinals, furtive sexual encounters in the city’s shrubberies and smutty semi-prostitution. Reminiscent of the Last Supper, the lavish Christmas dinner that forms one of the central images of the book and provides the pivotal event in Rasmus and Benjamin’s relationship is a tender, moving moment replete with dark forebodings of a bleak future which is all too imminent.
Despite its brevity, Torka aldrig tårar... manages many things: its affecting narrative draws the reader into the lives of two tormented young men, its depiction of the life of Stockholm’s gay community stuns and shames, and its blend of humour and staggering sincerity will make you both laugh and cry. More than anything, however, Torka aldrig tårar... bears witness to the oppression and struggle of homosexuals, to the tragedy of AIDS, which like the Grim Reaper strode through the gay community just as it was sensing the beginnings of a brighter, more hopeful day, and to the silence that still surrounds this period.
And in this act of bearing witness, Gardell has finally found a narrative big enough to contain his melodramatic mannerisms, emotional grandiloquence and sentimental sincerity; he has found his way home. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Torka aldrig tårar... shines a light on a shamefully ignored chapter of Sweden’s modern history with immeasurable sorrow and intense anger but also with warmth and love. If the next two parts of this trilogy bear out the promise of Love, we may all be in the presence of a new modern classic.