Profile of Sven Lindqvist, author of "The Desert Divers".
(published in High Life, the magazine of British Airways, in May 2000)
By Richard Gott
Sven Lindqvist is one of Sweden's greatest contemporary writers, with more
than thirty books written over the last forty years, yet only recently has his
fame begun to spread beyond the shores of Scandinavia. His books are mostly
non-fiction, and they are so original and provocative that his talents are
finally being recognised by an international readership, from France and Germany to
Britain and the United States.
In spite of globalisation and the speed at which people now fly around the
world, it still can take a long time for the work of a writer in one language
to make that quantum leap into the language of another. Writers often have a
specific audience in mind, but readers in one country do not necessarily have
the same needs and desires as those in the country next door. Yet to judge by
airport bookshops, a handful of common denominators clearly exist. Almost
everyone seems to want to read about sex and crime, and the language of origin
matters not a hoot. Increasingly, it seems, we also like to read about travel, and
about faraway countries. The more we move about the globe, the more we want
to know about it, and we want to know what other people make of it too. Which
is probably why an interesting writer in Sweden, beavering away over the years
and providing Scandinavian readers with his thoughts about the outside world,
has finally come to the attention of a non-Swedish audience.
This year, Lindqvist's book "The Desert Divers" appears in English from
Granta, a British publisher famous for providing good writing for the intelligent
reader, and its publication follows on last year's huge critical success for
the translation of "Exterminate All The Brutes", an ingeniously researched
exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as
a travel book though time and space.
While the earlier book picked up a line from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of
Darkness", which described a journey into the backwoods of the Belgian Congo, "The
Desert Divers" is a re-examination of the writing of three other European
writers who were fascinated not just by Africa but by the experience of "diving"
into the Sahara: André Gide, Antoine de St Exupéry, and Isabelle Eberhardt.
Lindqvist's account of their obsession with the desert is mingled with his own
encounter with this heart of a rather different kind of darkness.
I have been a good friend of Lindqvist's for more than thirty years, and we
meet most years, sometimes in Stockholm but chiefly in the reading rooms of
the British Library, where he does much of his research. He is unfailingly
cheerful, with the mien of a scholar but the infinite zest of an inveterate
traveller. We first bumped into each other in Bolivia during Che Guevara's guerrilla
campaign in 1967, when many footlose Europeans were trying to discover what
was going on. He was travelling through Latin America in an old car with
Cecilia, his first wife, and their small son Aron. He was preparing a book on
peasants and the land question, and writing articles for the Dagens Nyheter, the
Swedish liberal daily.
We travelled together for a few days, visiting the infamous tin mines of
the high Andean plateau, and I have never forgotten his immense energy and the
intellectual rigour with which he would address the people we met and
interviewed. He is not really a "travel writer" in the usual sense, but he uses the
experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration
of problems that are often a good deal nearer home. His books are always lean
and spare, and almost didactic, achieving their aim through dry wit and
sparkling intelligence rather than with purple passages of description. His
lapidary style of writing, expressing thoughts and discoveries in short bouts of
concentration, comes closer to the European tradition of writers like Nietzsche
and Gide than to the discursive narration of most Anglo-Saxon writers
Lindqvist has travelled over much of the globe, and his interest in faraway
places started when he was quite young. "The world outside Sweden in my
childhood," he recalls, "was the missionary who came to Sunday School and told us
about his experiences in Africa or China, or wherever. Often he would have some
fascinating objects to show us, of native artistry. There were also books in
which you could find woodcuts or other black-and-white pictures that seemed
quite out of this world. Very simple by today's standards, they gave you an
enormous lust to go there."
He fears that such experiences may no longer be open to people in quite the
same way. "Today, with so many pictures and so much printed material, and of
course the television, I don't know whether they give you the same longing to
go there and to see it for yourself. The media images are so perfect that they
can almost be a substitute for the actual travelling."
Lindqvist's first enthusiasm was for China, sparked off by reading "The
Glass Bead Game", that infinitely intricate novel by the Nobel prizewinner,
Herman Hesse. He was immensely affected by the book, he says, "and it struck me
that in order to really understand the game of glass beads you would have to
learn some Chinese." He stayed in Stockholm to study with the great Swedish
sinologist, Bernard Karlgren, and then went off to China to live there for two years
in the early 1960s, just after Mao Tse-tung's "Great Leap Forward". First he
produced a book of reportage, published in English as "China in Crisis", and
then he wrote a more philosophical work, "The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu", that many
people consider to be his finest work, though only parts of it have been
published in English. He continued to travel, through Latin America and parts of
Africa, and with return visits to China and side expeditions to Russia and
Lindqvist has been a writer with many interests, some of them changing
gradually over time. Although a frequent traveller, he remains deeply rooted in
Swedish society and has produced several books that reflect his liberal and
reformist interests. One of them, called "Dig Where You Stand", was designed to
explain to workers how they could set about researching the history of the firms
they worked for. By exploring the archaeology of the workplace, he hoped that
workers would be better able to confront the difficulties of the present day.
Another was concerned with the need to shake up the government bureaucracy,
and to introduce the idea of "work exchange", encouraging civil servants to
take a sabbatical doing a menial job.
Yet another of his projects, which grew out of "Exterminate All The
Brutes", was to revive the memory of anti-racists. "It surprised me to find, when I
was researching this part of our history, that all the time there had been
people who had been opposing racism, even at a time when racism was very
predominant, in the second part of the 19th century. There were always people who
resisted and criticised the thoughts of the racists, in a way that today we would
find very modern and right. Yet little was written about them. All the
histories of racism were about the great racists, nothing was written about the heroic
peoples who resisted it." So Lindqvist decided to fill the gap, producing an
account of the lives of some twenty uncelebrated anti-racists. The book is now
published in English under the title of "The Skull Measurer's Mistake".
Once when we met in Stockholm, Lindqvist took me to his Friday encounters
in the public sauna. He would gather together, on the wooden benches in the
steam, a cross-section of the Stockholm population who had become his friends,
and they would talk the afternoon away. On other rewarding occasion, he lent me
his Chinese masseuse. Long before it became fashionable, he had an enthusiasm
for going regularly to the gym, an interest that eventually led by a devious
route to the writing of "The Desert Divers", the second of three books that all
relate to a series of journeys through Africa.
He had started to write "a book about the adventures of an intellectual in
the body-building world." While doing his physical exercises, "the main
character in the book suddenly gets in touch with his childhood, and remembers
things that he had entirely forgotten - the meaning that physical strength had had
for him as a child, and how he had once sought to build it up." Other memories
are resurrected, and "the dreams that he used to have about the Sahara, and
the longings he had had to go to that vast and empty space, full of sand and
Lindqvist soon began to realise that he was writing a new and different
book, so he finished the body-building book, called "Bänkpress" (Benchpress - the
Body-Builders), and started on "The Desert Divers", with its evocation of the
extraordinary people who had the dangerous task of diving into the deep wells
of the Sahara.
"I had read about these divers as a child, in a book published in the 1920s
by a Swedish officer, Thorsten Orre. He was the first Swede to really work in
the Sahara, and he wrote about his adventures with the French military. He
described among other things how he had seen these divers dive into the wells of
the desert. They are tremendously deep, for it is very far down to the ground
water in the Sahara." In Lindqvist's book, the image of the divers was to
become a metaphor for the European adventurers who had also plunged into the
environment of the desert, excited both by its strangeness and and by the sense of
Lindqvist himself has made several expeditions across North Africa,
although this is one area of the world from which he has produced no volume of
reportage. "During one of these journeys," he recalls, "I went with a Swedish
diplomat to the Polisario camp on the Algerian side of the border, and I interviewed
a lot of Polisario people. Because of an accident, I lost all my notes, and I
was never able to make anything out of this experience. But the memory of it
remains with me very vividly."
Lindqvist is no longer such a lustful traveller as he once was, and he
lives quietly today in an apartment in a leafy square of central Stockholm, with
his second wife, Agneta Stark, a distinguished economist. He is the fortunate
beneficiary of a rather wonderful, typically Swedish, form of state bursary,
whereby 150 of the country's greatest artists and musicians, writers and poets,
are each guaranteed that if their annual income from their work falls below
that of a metal worker, it will be topped up by the state. "If it's Ingmar
Bergman," he says with a grin, "he won't need to use it very often, but I've found
it rather useful; for many poets, it's their main source of income."
Now in his 68th year, Lindqvist can look back on an agreable life of
considerable fulfilment. "I really had two great childhood ambitions," he says, "to
write and to travel. To see the world was extremely important, that was the
sublime thing, to go there and to have been there.
"But I also wanted to write, though not necessarily about travelling,
because I got such an immense pleasure out of reading; it occurred to me that the
pleasure of creating such text would be even more satisfying.
"I have been able to fulfil both these ambitions," he concludes with a
twinkle, "and in this way my life has been immensely successful, because I've
hardly done anything else, other than the two things that I really really wanted
to do when I was a small boy."
Books by Sven Lindqvist available in English translation:
The Desert Divers, Granta (in the UK)
Exterminate All The Brutes, Granta and The New Press (in the US)
The Skull Measurer's Mistake, The New Press (in the US)