Johan Bargum’s analyses

Issue 2/1982 | Archives online, Authors

Johan Bargum. Photo: Irmeli Jung

Johan Bargum. Photo: Irmeli Jung

Few Finland-Swedish authors can make a living by their writing. A readership of little more than 300,000 cannot support a large number of writers, and only the most successful books sell more than a thousand copies. Writers have thus no choice but to seek other markets, notably in Sweden or among the Finnish-speaking population.

Both alternatives present problems, but popular writers like Henrik Tikkanen and Christer Kihlman are tending more and more to publish simultaneously in all three markets. Since the publication of his novel Den privata detektiven (‘The private detective’) in 1980, which even became the Book of the Month in Sweden, Johan Bargum has joined this group. Enthusiastic reviewers have since speculated on the possibility of translations into other European languages.

Born in 1943, Bargum grew up in Helsinki and, like so many other writers with their roots in the Finnish capital, he comes from an upper-class family. Politically he belongs to the left, while artistically he has benefited from family tradition: both his grandmother, Margit von Willebrand-Hollmerus, and his mother, Viveca Hollmerus, are well-known authors. Writing as a family tradition is actually quite a common phenomenon in Finland-Swedish literature.

A social conscience

Thanks to his skill as a dramatist as well as a prose-writer, Johan Bargum has been able to live by his pen for the past ten years. Early in the 1970s he had a success with Som snort (‘A cinch’), Bygga bastu (‘Building a sauna’) and Virke och verkan (‘Material and the making’), all specially written for Lilla Teatern, the Swedish-language theatre in Helsinki. In this trilogy he was concerned with the difficulties encountered by small businessman in their struggle against large monopolies. His text is characterized by a strong ironic humour.

Johan Bargum actually started his career as a short-story writer with Svartvitt (‘Black and White’, 1965), and the concentration of the short story still makes its mark on the novels to which he has now turned. He specialises in laconic but vivid descriptions of a series of events, and he fashions each episode with unusual skill. This is clearly seen in the novels Femte advent (‘Fifth advent’, 1967), Tre, två, ett (‘Three, two, one’, 1968), Finsk rulett (‘Finnish roulette’, 1972) and Mörkrum (‘Dark room’, 1977). The last of these was used by the Swedish film director Lars Lennart Forsberg as the basis of his film Kristoffers hus (‘Kristoffer’s house’, 1979).

A feature common to all his books is Bargum’s social conscience. Ideologically he belongs to the 1960s: he was one of the group associated with the younger generation’s periodical FBT, among the editors of which were Claes Andersson – poet, psychiatrist and now Chairman of the Finland-Swedish Writers’ Union – and the lawyer and left-wing politician Lars D. Eriksson. A radical view of society was taken for granted, and, as in many other cases, the Vietnam War made its mark. A protest from the left-wing intellectuals was felt to be necessary, not least in a Finland-Swedish society traditionally dominated by middle-class thinking: it is believed that about 70 per cent of Finland-Swedes still vote for the Swedish People’s Party (Svenska folkpartiet), in which views ranging from social liberalism to extreme conservatism find their home, with their support for the Swedish language as the principal unifying factor. To oppose this compact majority has been felt by writers and other intellectuals to be both a necessity and a challenge.

Shattered dreams

Johan Bargum never resorts to outright propaganda: he is far too conscious an artist for that. A novel like Mörkrum is impressive for its sophisticated structure and the unswerving sense of composition informing it. The action takes place in just over a week and tells of a freelance photographer, Kristoffer, faced with a series of increasingly difficult moral conflicts. He discovers an old man who has been lying dead in his flat for a long time. Obsessed by the sight, he starts investigating the man’s past to find out how his isolation could be so complete: how can someone be left rotting in a block of flats in the affluent Finland of today?

The conclusion reached is that, “No one hears that someone is alive. No one hears when someone dies.”

Alongside runs the parallel of Kristoffer’s relationship to his ageing grandmother and, in particular, to his daughter. Here we come to an essential motif in Bargum’s later work: the relationship between father and daughter. In Mörkrum it is a middle-aged man and his ten-year-old daughter, in Den privata detektiven a fifty-year-old man and his daughter of twenty, and a novel just completed is concerned with the relationship between a mature woman and her elderly father.

Throughout, Bargum combines the ingredients of a psychological novel with the powerful suspense of a thriller. Den privata detektiven can be called a detective story, but not to look beyond this superficial description would be misleading and would do the book a profound injustice. Fundamentally the novel presents a cross-section of the fragmented life of the 1980s, in which so many people are forced to live on someone else’s terms. All attempts to communicate, not least between the generations, seemed doomed to failure. Den privata detektiven is set in an accurately portrayed Helsinki where we meet Arnold Strömberg, an ex-policeman turned security guard, and his daughter Eva. Arnold’s hero is Nelson, who, with his blind eye, becomes an important symbol in the novel.

Eva meets Skädi, a youthful drop-out, and they dream together of escaping from it all and going to the USA. They hope to acquire enough money from Skädi’s petty thieving, but they avoid real work. Eva becomes a prostitute to bring them closer to their dream of freedom.

The young are totally devoid of illusion, but so is the older generation. Arnold, too, is worn out long before he ought to be. His lonely daily routine is meaningless; his wife has been sent to a mental home and has committed suicide by jumping out of a window. His world is in ruins, he watches in growing desperation as his daughter prepares to leave him. Around these people Bargum constructs a terse account of people who lack words to express their feelings. They are silent, introvert, haunted by shattered dreams, but paradoxically taking refuge in unrealistic hopes.

Father figures

Now Bargum has completed another novel, entitled Pappas flicka (‘Daddy’s girl’), which is to be published in the autumn of 1982 in Finland-Swedish, Swedish and Finnish editions. If Mörkrum is sophisticated in its structure, this is even more so, as the 37-year-old Sissy learns to come to grips with the influence of her father and her husband, Fredrik. The crisis around which the book is written is occasioned by the death of the father, and the catharsis comes, symbolically, when the urn containing his ashes is buried. The father has done everything he could to ‘look after’ Sissy, and this task has subsequently been shouldered and carried further by Fredrik. Both men, in their desire to look after her, indulge in underhand business transactions. At the same time the father has been less than faithful to his own wife, and an illegitimate son of his plays an important part in the book. The whole of this plot emerges as the result of long conversations between Sissy and her psychiatrist, Dr Berg. As the sessions continue, her accounts of her childhood and her marriage reveal the intricate relationship which Sissy has had to her father on the one hand and her husband – himself a father figure – on the other. Dr Berg comes in part to stand as a third father figure. Sissy’s neurosis is finally cured – though she wonders for how long- but her movement towards liberating herself is parallelled by a childhood regression on the part of her daughter. It is in keeping with this modestly optimistic end that Johan Bargum should have adopted a new tone in this book, a sporadic kind of laconic humour. He has indeed included some very funny scenes – for instance when Sissy and the naked young man she is sketching (actually her half-brother, though she does not know it) hide in a wardrobe when Fredrik turns up – together with some hilarious comments, sometimes occasioned by the associative element of the psychotherapy. The prize must go to Sissy’s smelling a tournedos steak and wondering whether her father has yet been cremated.

Translated by W. Glyn Jones


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