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Publication Date: Jan 11, 2022

288 pp

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ISBN: 978-1-63542-004-3

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Son of Svea

A Tale of the People's Home

by Lena Andersson Translated by Sarah Death

ELSA

Towards the end of the year 1999, an ethnologist from the University of Uppsala advertised for people—while there was still time, for their numbers were dwindling—to provide the raw material for her research on the Swedish mentality in the age of modernity.
At that point, Elsa Johansson was twenty-nine years old. She wrote a letter to the ethnologist to propose her father, a retired craftsman. His daughter was of the opinion that he was wasting away, leading far too quiet a life in Vällingby, in the northwest outskirts of Stockholm, where none of his considerable talents were being put to use.
Her father was so suitable for the research project, she wrote, that he would never dream of volunteering for it. “That sort of self-awareness would presumably disqualify anyone from what you are trying to explore. Your selection would be distorted if you only took people who think they fit your description.”
Elsa was doing a PhD in linguistics and was thus rather preoccupied with problems of research methodology.
After three weeks, there was a reply from the ethnologist. She would be happy to meet Ragnar Johansson for an exploratory chat. It was only then that Elsa told her father about it. He was doubtful and disposed to be negative, but Elsa was prepared for this and had worked out how best to get him interested. She explained that it was to do with Sweden as a former role model for the world, about the nation’s illustrious past, in which he had played a small but important part.
“If I can contribute something it might be a good thing, then,” said her father, “though I don’t understand what I could have to say that a scholar like that doesn’t already know.”
Elsa wrote to the ethnologist and suggested a meeting at the Pallas Café in Vällingby. The café had been there ever since they built Vällingby in 1954, when people came to visit from all over, to study a suburb of the future that had become a reality in their own age, thought-out in every functional, elegant detail as well as in the reverential effects of the whole on the democratic individual.

Elsa and Ragnar had found a seat in a dark corner by the time the ethnologist arrived, three minutes after the appointed hour, her eyes scanning the café. Elsa raised her hand to show where they were sitting. “It could have been delays on the underground,” said Ragnar, looking at his watch. “They get leaves on the line at this time of year.”
The ethnologist was at the counter ordering, café au lait and some sort of bun that she seemed to pick at random after a quick glance at the cakes and pastries on offer. She looked harassed as she finally made her way over to the table with her tray, slopping coffee out of the cup and rendering her bun largely inedible.
Ragnar stood up, tall but slightly hunched as he held out his hand in greeting.
“Ragnar Johansson.”
Elsa hoped the ethnologist was observant enough to register the essential little details, like the extremely distinct and confrontational way in which he said his name, like an assertion of something irrefutable that nonetheless required justification, and shook her hand. His hands were of the kind exclusive to those who work with them, with the thumb so far from the base of the index finger that the palm formed a perfect, rounded bowl.
She did not feel entirely certain that the ethnologist was seeing what she ought to see. The woman seemed underprepared, and was rummaging around in her shoulder bag for a notepad and pen.
Ragnar had a meringue-topped cake in front of him. This he returned to as soon as he resumed his seat, and with a concentration and zeal rarely seen in an adult put in front of a cake.
“I should have got here earlier,” said the ethnologist with an unhappy look. “You weren’t supposed to pay for yours.”
For the second time she looked Ragnar Johansson in the eye, an eye in which there was not a single cloud of calculation to be discerned.
“So was it Stockholm University that was meant to pay?”
“The University of Uppsala.”
“That would be from our taxes, then.”
It was more of a meditative observation than a question. “Why should the taxpayers pay for my cake today?” He sounded genuinely baffled, as if faced with a problem he needed some help in solving.
The ethnologist appeared at a loss.
“Do you come here every day?” she asked. “No.”
Ragnar was now into the final third of his meringue, which he was eating as carefully as the previous sections.
“But I have coffee every day, of course.”
He spoke slowly, his vocal pitch draining his words of interest. Sitting there, Elsa could see it would be impossible for the ethnologist to know that the slowness was the result of Ragnar Johansson constantly testing everything he said against some internal arbiter of authenticity, which checked that nothing false, illogical, or poorly considered crossed his lips.
As he consumed his cake in small mouthfuls, he kept his left hand cupped under the teaspoon while the right hand raised it to his mouth. Between each mouthful he took a gulp of his black filter coffee. There was nothing approximate in the way he ate his cake and drank his coffee, only a strange combination of systematic action and enjoyment.
The ethnologist had so far only taken one careless bite of her soggy bun.
“You went for a Karlsbader, then?” Elsa asked her.
The ethnologist looked down at her bun and turned it round as if expecting to find the name on it somewhere.
“Oh, did I? Maybe, I don’t know. I just picked one that looked nice.”
“Yes,” Ragnar Johansson said to himself, “I like a Karlsbader. It’s got that light crispness to it.”
“A bit more like a Danish pastry than a bun,” said Elsa. “Or a cross between a Danish pastry and an ordinary bun.” Ragnar gave a nod and added: “But there’s a lot of fat in Danish pastries. That isn’t good.”
“Does it have to be classified so precisely?” asked the ethnologist, making a note.
“You have to know what you’re eating,” replied Ragnar. “The ability to distinguish, demarcate, sort, and differentiate is the common denominator of all expertise,” put in Elsa, with a mildly ironic and knowing little laugh, well aware that this was a matter of dispute in the academic circles of which she and the ethnologist were both part.
Then the ethnologist introduced her proposal and her subject. She was intending to write about the Swedish “People’s Home” of the twentieth century as an arena for social mobility and processes of mentalization. It was just a pilot study for now, and there was no guarantee of funding.
Ragnar turned his guileless gaze out of the window onto Vällingby’s main square.
“That seems complicated,” he said, sounding as if he no longer had anything to do with life.
The academic explained that what she was looking for was still vague, although sharply focused in her mind. As a researcher, she wasn’t allowed to be a metaphysicist, she said; solid empiricism was the only thing that mattered, but she still had to rely on her intuition for finding something she could make her empirical observations around, and she knew that what she was looking for did exist in some relevant sense of the word, and that it was important.
Ragnar looked at her and said politely but guardedly that he was sorry, but he couldn’t help with difficult things like that.
“How many times a day do you have coffee?”
The question was cast out like a hook, not in the hope of any specific catch, but Ragnar was able to provide her with the precise information:
“Three times. At ten o’clock, two o’clock, and before I go to bed.”
“Every day?”
“With a bun,” said Elsa, “always with a bun or something.”
“Humph. Maybe a small cookie, nothing very much.” “Can you get to sleep if you have coffee just before bedtime?”
“I’ve never had any problem sleeping.”
“He can’t sleep without coffee,” said Elsa. “Bitter filter coffee that’s been left on the hot plate all day.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my coffee. The coffee’s gone so damn peculiar these days. It sputters and hisses and gurgles and roars, and you can hardly hear what people are saying. It doesn’t make it taste any better, either, and you don’t get anything like enough in your cup.”
Elsa remarked to the ethnologist that if she was going to write on this subject, she ought not to underestimate the impact that temperance had had on the coffee-drinking culture of the country people of Sweden.
“Where there’s a horror of the effects of strong liquor on diligence and efficiency, relaxation and happiness have to come from other sources. So they introduced a comprehensive system of taking coffee with the famous ‘seven sorts of cake,’ and at very regular intervals.”
“Do you think so?” asked the ethnologist dubiously. She was clearly not remotely familiar with the description. Perhaps she came from a home with different habits, thought Elsa, where coffee and buns were not ritualized, where you drank red wine with your meal and rounded it off with an espresso and a chocolate with high cocoa content, the way Elsa herself now lived.
“Yes, definitely.”
Ragnar Johansson was sitting there, lost in his own thoughts, one hand in his lap and the other on the table. It made him look slightly awkward.

It was Elsa who called Ragnar with the news that the research project the ethnologist had told them about was not going ahead after all. By then he had virtually forgotten the meeting at Pallas, and was indifferent to this development. But when, out of politeness, he asked why that was, Elsa said it was quite hard to explain.
“There’s a long answer and a short answer. The long one is that the ethnologist’s supervisor criticized her from the word go for trying to reproduce essences in so-called reality outside discourse.”
“That sounds complex. What does it mean?”
“The People’s Home, for instance, which she wanted to write about as a kind of mental state, taking you as an example . . .”
“Yes?”
“It doesn’t exist. The People’s Home doesn’t exist.” Ragnar cleared his throat several times.
“In what way doesn’t it exist?” “In the sense that it’s a construct.” “Aha. Yes.”
“She also said she had come to realize that Ragnar Johansson, i.e., you, didn’t really have what was expected of contemporary research in her field.”
“But I said that all along. I said it right from the beginning, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. And that’s why she’s starting another thesis instead, on how, and I quote, ‘the weakest citizens of the so-called People’s Home were portrayed as aberrant and abnormal in parliamentary bills in the years 1932–45 and 1969–86.’”
“That’ll be fine, I’m sure,” said Ragnar.
“It’ll get her a grant, at any rate. And a lot of attention.” “You know these things you talk about are way too difficult for me, Elsa. All these things you do. What was the short answer?”
Elsa gave this some thought. “That you’re too ordinary.”
“Good,” said Ragnar. “I’m happy with that.”

RAGNAR

1

This is the story of a twentieth-century Swede. A man without cracks but with a great split running through him, and in this he entirely resembled the society he populated and shaped.
Ragnar Johansson was Swedish; he was the archetypal Swede. Elsa said that to him once, and he knew she didn’t mean it as a compliment. Swedes found it ridiculous being Swedish, he had come to realize. The Swede was a country bumpkin of earthy simplicity. Those who voiced an opinion of the Swede did not consider themselves among his number but inhabited the thin stratum of abstractions in the air high above, where admittedly they spoke Ragnar’s mother tongue but used it mainly for conveying to simpler souls precisely how simple they were, and how erroneously they thought and acted.
Ragnar’s mother Svea’s maiden name was the archetypally Swedish Svensson. Her brother’s name was Sven. But ordinariness was a virtue, and Ragnar had no intention of apologizing for the fact that his mother’s side of the family sounded as though they came from a primary-school reading book.
Sven and Svea Svensson were born, lived, and died in Svea rike, the kingdom of Sweden. As children they lived in Götaland, the most southerly of the three traditional lands of Sweden. In adulthood and old age they lived in the middle, in Svealand. Their parents’ names were Johannes and Linnéa.
After their five years of elementary education in Glömminge, on the island of Öland, they were taken on by two separate farms in the area, he as a hand and she as a maid. When Svea was nineteen and Sven twenty-one, they traveled to the capital city together to look for work. Sven became a bricklayer, and Svea kept house for three rather well-to-do sisters in the smart district of Östermalm, where they shared an apartment on Narvavägen.
Svea was pleasant, dependable, and trustworthy, and within a few years she was married to Gunnar Johansson, the owner of a small haulage company. Sven, too, married above his station, to a woman from a farming family in the province of Ångermanland. Her name was Märit, and she had a lopsided mouth, which with nature’s sense of proportion corresponded to a slight limp. There was also a hint of something corrosively surly in her manner that only corresponded to her deep sense of dissatisfaction, prompting suitors of her own social class to opt for other candidates. Märit Lind had to make do with Sven Svensson, an active trade unionist and member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party.
The girl from the solid farming background realized that with her congenitally crooked body she just had to make the best of it, but she found her husband’s gracelessness and poor-man’s ways such an affliction that she never let Sven forget that she had married beneath her, not him. The pair lived their whole lives in a tiny flat in the district of Abrahamsberg, with a kitchen so small that they could barely sit down together to eat. It was Sven who had to stand. As often as he could, he would go across town to see his sister Svea in Birkastan and eat her pork and potato dumplings, like they used to have on Öland. She would always make a vast number of dumplings, grating potato until she was worn out, and then they would eat them and talk about things only the two of them could remember.

Svea felt no sadness at exchanging Svensson for Johansson when she married Gunnar. The son they produced together, the subject of this story, was born the following year, year zero in Swedish history, the year Social Democracy came to power in the country and took over Protestantism’s all-embracing mantle of care, severity, and the tendency for self-flagellation, both individually and collectively, which it would then occupy uninterrupted for forty-four years, fundamentally transforming Sweden.
Johansson’s little haulage company did reasonably well, and Svea and Gunnar toiled from morning to night. On Sundays they were able to take things a little easier, but the horses had to be fed and watered every day of the week, so they didn’t get a proper rest then, either. Fear of the business failing was always there, but Gunnar was occasionally entrusted with some particularly responsible task, which lent a shimmer to their days—like the time he was in charge of clearing the snow in front of the main government building when the prime minister of Norway was visiting their own Per Albin Hansson. Gunnar was even in a photograph that was published in Stockholms-Tidningen. Svea’s husband was a contented man, satisfied with life and his allocated place in it. All he wanted was to run his modest business in a way that brought his family enough to get by. For a short period, they had two boys. The first-born, whom they called Ture, was delicate and sickly and died when he was two years old, just after Ragnar arrived. Ragnar, by contrast, was strong and healthy, and already weighed five kilos when he was born.
On Sundays, Mother Svea was able to sleep in until seven and had plenty of time to sit over her morning coffee, thinking about things to the sound of the old wall clock, and then to dress in her best for the church service at eleven.
She had to go to church alone, because Gunnar was an atheist.


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