ATW80: SWEDEN – Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti

Review published on September 23, 2015.

Around the world in 80 books
Jade Craddock is on the move again, pushing on through Scandinavia.
The next leg of my world tour takes me from Finland
to neighbouring Sweden. And despite the proximity of
the two nations, in terms of literary translations,
Sweden has forged ahead in recent years, so much
so that it was the sixth most translated European
language in English between 2000 and 2012 according to Literature Across Frontiers. And of course the old favourite, Nordic Noir, has had a lot to do with that. As the heroine of Swedish author, Katarina Bivald’s, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend summarises, the ‘only image of Sweden comprised sadomasochistic conspiracies and organised crime, with a touch of Serbian mafia thrown in to confuse things.’ Well-known imports such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Henning Mankell’s Wallander have certainly cemented such impressions. And although Scandi-crime is definitely the dominant genre, Swedish literature isn’t all doom and gloom. But of course if you like that kind of thing, you’re on to a winner.

Although Swedish literature dates back to the Vikings, yes they had time to pen a saga or two in between taking to the high seas, it began to really flourish in the twentieth century, with the author Selma Largerlof being the first Swedish writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, nine years after the award’s inception. There have since been a further six Nobel laureates from Sweden – Verner von Heidenstam (1916), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), Pär Lagerkvist (1951), Eyvind Johnson (1974), Harry Martinson (1974), Tomas Tranströmer (2011) – although given the fact that the Nobel Prize originated in Sweden there has been some controversy over what some see as a national leaning in the selection choices. Away from the Nobel Prize, children’s author and creator of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren remains one of Sweden’s great success stories and as well as having a Swedish literary award in her name (Astrid Lindgren Prize), she also has the posthumous honour of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize, the most lucrative prize in children’s literature.

In recent years Jonas Jonasson has emerged as a popular Swedish author with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared and his follow-up The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (these Swedish translations do go in for unwieldy titles). And in the same vein we’ve seen the emergence of Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, author of The Little Old Lady who Broke All the Rules (see what I mean about titles) and its sequel The Little Old Lady who Struck Lucky Again, and Fredrick Backman, author of A Man Called Ove [a Recommended Read in newbooks85] and his latest title, released in June, My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies. More fantastical is Mikael Niemi’s Popular Music from Vittula, whilst for historical readers, there’s Jan Guillou’s Crusades trilogy, Magnus Florin’s The Garden, based on the life of Swedish botanist Linnaeus, and the works of Per Olov Enquist, including The Visit of the Royal Physician, shortlisted for both Sweden’s August Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin literary prize, and described as ‘adultery, insanity, back-stabbing and blue blood’ – what more could you want?

Additionally, Peter Froberg Idling’s Song for an Approaching Storm set in Cambodia was released in April of this year. There’s also been a healthy number of August Prize shortlisted authors whose titles have been translated in recent years, including: Bengt Ohlsson (Gregorius), Monika Fagerholm (The American Girl), Steve Sem-Sandberg (The Emperor of Lies), Tomas Bannerhed (The Ravens), and Goran Rosenberg (A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz). Linda Ohlsson’s The Memory of Love and Majgull Axelsson’s April Witch have also been noteworthy releases.

In terms of YA, Sara Elfgren and Mats Strandberg’s Engelsfors trilogy has become an international bestseller, whilst Sara Kadefors’ Are U 4 Real? offers something more contemporary. And as if that hasn’t covered all bases, there’s even something for sports fans with the larger than life football personality that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography.

And already this year it seems as if the Swedish invasion isn’t set to slow down. January saw the release of Asa Larsson’s latest title The Second Deadly Sin, with an as yet untitled novel due for release in December, and Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Boy in the Shadows (although his August Prize Winning 2002 novel surely gets the award for the most impressive title in amongst some strong contenders: The Horrific Sufferings Of The Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and his Terrible Hatred). There were notable releases in February from old favourites Lars Kepler (The Sandman) and Mari Jungstedt (The Dangerous Game) as well as two exciting debuts to hit our shores, Winter Wolf by Cecelia Ekback and The Room by Jonas Karlsson. March and April saw the release of Scandi-crime titles Third Voice by Cilla and Rolf Börjlind and Water Angels by Mons Kallentoft, whilst June had titles from seasoned favourites Liza Marklund (Without A Trace), Carin Gerhardsen (The Last Lullaby) and Roslund and Hellstrom (Two Soldiers), as well as the winning title of the August Prize 2013, Lena Andersson’s Wilful Disregard, and the title for all booklovers, Katarina Bivald’s The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Hakkan Nesser is back with The Living and Dead in Winsford in July, as too are Camilla Lackberg (The Hidden Child) and Kristina Ohlsson (Hostage), with Arne Dahl’s Europa Blues due for release in August. And that’s not to mention Henning Mankell, Jens Lapidus, Kerstin Ekman, Anna Jansson, Johan Theorin et al. It really is something of a Swedish renaissance.

For me it was Katarina Mazetti’s simply titled Benny and Shrimp that caught my attention. Although not as contemporary as some of the other titles on the list, first published in 1999 and later made into a film in Sweden in 2002, it wasn’t translated until 2010. And whilst some of the views did feel a bit outdated, this is as much to do with the persuasions of the two main characters, the eponymous Benny and Desiree aka Shrimp. The novel is a quasi-love story but not as we know it. It is as the original title describes not a normal case of the boy next door but rather the boy from the grave next door! Yes, naturally, this is a love story that begins in a cemetery (where else!). And in that fact lies the offbeat essence of this strange tragicomedy. And in the first few pages I was totally engaged, the humour was wry if a bit crazy, the characters compelling if a bit bizarre and the story edgy if a bit kooky. I was thinking arty film territory. However, as the novel progressed, it all became a bit too much, with some very peculiar instances and a preoccupation with the physical relationship. The narrative too became extremely circular, as the characters move around in a seemingly endless loop of pushing away and pulling together, with little actually happening. There were glimmers of hope and some really interesting and compelling uses of language. The ending seemed to be heading towards a rather unexpected poignancy until it was all undone in the final scene. There has been, I have discovered, a sequel, but as it’s yet to be translated, we are made to leave Benny and Shrimp very much in limbo, not exactly that different to how we found them. I much preferred Katarina Bivald’s title and would suggest that newcomers may prefer to start there, but if you want something a bit different, Benny and Shrimp may just deliver.

Jade Craddock
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Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti was published by Short Books in 2010

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