Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2018:2
Review Section: Fiction
A teacher who blackmails her way to controlling unruly pupils. A mysterious book that makes wives divorce their husbands. A non-existent Hungarian colleague who creates more trouble than his inventor could ever have imagined. A teenager waiting for death, and daily life as lived through computer games. These six stories were generated – if we are to believe the final, eponymous story – by an algorithm.
According to the book cover, however, this collection of short stories was generated by Danny Wattin, a Swedish writer who has been based in Australia as well as Sweden. While his previous novel, Herr Isakowitz skatt (Herr Isakowitz’s Treasure) was based on Wattin’s Jewish heritage, recounting a European road trip he took in search of the treasure his great-grandfather had buried before being deported, Historiegeneratorn is set in contemporary times. The stories are interlinked in the sense that characters or phenomena from one story are often mentioned by the characters in another, but not as closely as in, say, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – and they can be enjoyed as standalone stories, too.
There is a lot of humour here, some of it quite dark and much of it absurd. One of the most obvious English-language comparisons would be Roald Dahl’s stories for adults. The stand-out example of absurdity is ‘Jag är Gabor Papp’ (I Am Gabor Papp), in which a magazine editor invents fictional colleagues to hide the fact that he is a one-man editorial team, but then finds himself becoming entangled in an expanding web of lies. It all backfires to the point where he finds himself facing a murder charge – and no one believes his story.
Wattin takes aim at education policy (PISA results, pupil-centred learning, mobile phones in classrooms, just to mention a few issues) in ‘Allt är tillåtet i krig och skolpolitik’ (All’s Fair in War and School Policy). Here, a seemingly mild-mannered young female teacher, exasperated by the chaos and bullying at school, hits on a deeply unethical but effective solution that launches her on a surprising career in education. ‘My classroom is a war zone,’ she notes, adding, ‘This is what usually happens when you crush one authority without replacing it with something else’. Although the plot is extreme, the descriptions of lessons may well resonate with anyone who has spent time at the chalk face.
‘Albin & the gigabyte load’ weaves virtual reality and real life together so well that it takes some time before the reader can separate the two. This is a journey into the head of a boy who seems to spend his waking hours glued to his mobile, playing games and watching videos. The people he meets in the game world are more real to him than his parents, who seem to be mostly working. The effect is quietly unsettling, as it seems rather too plausible that there are real-life Albins.
A different note is struck in ‘Tips till en levande lillebror’ (Tips to a Little Brother who is Still Alive). The teenage narrator, dying of cancer, is on life support, against her will, and thinks of all the things she would like to say to her younger brother. It is intensely sad, and well-observed, without being mawkish.
The stories ‘I de nyseparerades rike är mäklaren kung’ (In the Kingdom of the Newly-Separated, the Estate Agent is King) and ‘Historiegeneratorn’ (The Story Generator) occupy absurd humour territory. The former describes a divorce epidemic among middle-class couples brought on by a book; the latter is told by an author who uncovers a conspiracy to generate bestsellers.
The illustrations by Ting Adolphus – one per story – are also a delight.