Reviewed by Janny Middelbeek-Oortgiesen in SBR 2014:2
Review Section: Fiction
Majgull Axelsson’s major breakthrough as a novelist came in 1997 with Aprilhäxan (April Witch). It brought her both the Swedish August Prize and a nomination for the European Aristeion Prize. Some 20 translations were published, some of them very successful – in the Netherlands, for instance, sales topped 80,000.
Axelsson, a journalist by profession, had previously published several non-fiction books exploring social issues including child labour, child prostitution and the lives of street children. She made her debut as a novelist with Långt borta från Nifelheim (Far Away from Nifelheim) in 1994. In this book, Axelsson depicts a Swedish female diplomat during an earthquake in the Philippines, who helps to save, and later adopts, a young Filipino girl. The protagonist also has to fight demons from her past. To this day, Långt borta från Nifelheim is one of my favourite books of all time: it is a novel with great psychological insight, a very strong plot and a socially important message.
After Aprilhäxan, Axelsson wrote a couple of plays and four more novels. These were socially engaged investigations of family relationships, sometimes written with a touch of magical realism, a technique that she had also used – very subtly – in Aprilhäxan. These books, too, were successful both in Sweden and abroad, though they lacked the overwhelming power that had struck readers of Aprilhäxan and Långt borta från Nifelheim. And now we have Jag heter inte Miriam. According to a recent interview, the author considers this her best novel to date. And she is not alone; it met with tremendous critical acclaim in Sweden and went straight to number one on the bestseller list. A constant theme in Axelsson’s work is that one cannot escape the past. In Jag heter inte Miriam, the author develops this theme. The main character is 85-year-old Miriam Adolfsson, the widow of a dentist, who is celebrating her birthday with her stepson, daughter-inlaw, granddaughter and great-grandson in a small Swedish town. Miriam came to Sweden in 1945 as a Jewish survivor of the concentration camps. When her family now gives her a silver bracelet, handcrafted by gypsies, as a birthday present, Miriam becomes very upset and suddenly says: ‘My name is not Miriam’. The family think Miriam is suffering from dementia but, during a walk that day, she reveals to her granddaughter that she is not in fact Jewish but Malika, the daughter of a gypsy silversmith, and born in southern Germany.
In flashbacks, partly told in dialogue form, partly relived in the mind of the protagonist, the story of what happened during the war and in post-war Sweden unfolds. When the Nazis came to power, Malika and her younger brother Didi were first taken to a convent for ‘re-education’ and later to Auschwitz. Here, Didi is subjected to Dr Mengele’s experiments on children and eventually dies. Malika, a teenager, is put on a train to Ravensbrück. To survive when her dress is torn to pieces, she makes a split-second decision to take the dress from Miriam Goldberg, a Jewish girl who died during transport, and assume her identity. The identification number tattooed on Malika’s arm in Auschwitz is almost identical to Miriam’s, the rest Malika scratches away.
As Miriam, Malika manages to survive Ravensbrück. When the camp is liberated she is put on a Red Cross train to Sweden. In the hierarchy of the concentration camps gypsies ranked lowest but the Swedes don’t like them either. (Swedish borders were closed to gypsies until 1954). Miriam is able to build a life in Sweden but feels she should never reveal her real identity, not even to her husband. At the age of 85, she decides she can no longer remain silent about what happened to her.
Majgull Axelsson has written a deeply moving story. From the very beginning, the reader is drawn into events, which are narrated in a very balanced way and in a restrained tone of voice. As the bibliography shows, Axelsson has read widely about the concentration camps. She has also interviewed survivors. By choosing a gypsy woman as her protagonist, she gives a voice to a group of victims of Nazism who are not often heard in literature. Jag heter inte Miriam can also be read as a comment on present-day bigotry and discrimination that is all the more timely in the light of the recent revelation that the Swedish police has kept secret records of gypsy families.
It was with good reason that the publisher decided to send a copy of the novel to the leaders of all the Swedish political parties. At a time of growing intolerance in Europe, Jag heter inte Miriam is an important novel. Everybody should read it.