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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

Afghanistan.

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

stones."

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

danger.

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)