Notes From the Margins…

Scandinavia: Our Imaginary Hell

  • January 29, 2012
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Things are getting fraught in Borgen,  the new series by the Danish company DR productions, which produced The Killing.     The corrupt and amoral political shark Laugesen has published a tell-all memoir which dishes the dirt on the sex-lives of some of the ministers in Birgitte Nyborg’s coalition government.

The Special Branch have been bugging one of her coalition partners and the Justice Minister’s attempts to evade responsibility have led Nyborg to declare him a ‘dead man in my government’.

Meanwhile the relationship between Nyborg and her supportive hubby Philip is  under strain.   She’s always out running the state and her eight-year-old son is bedwetting.

As a result, the Nyborgs’  sex life is suffering, and Philip is tempted by one of his students and feeling so emasculated by his wife’s high-powered job that he is forced to bail out of one of the few opportunities they get to have sex while on holiday at the Prime Ministerial official residence.

Fortunately he gets headhunted and becomes the CEO of a multinational, and this job offer has such an impact on his sex drive that he is galvanised to engage his wife in a  Postman Always Rings Twice-ish clinch at the kitchen sink at eleven in the morning – activity that we can only hope our own prime minister will refrain from for the sake of good taste and common decency.

Meanwhile hot journalist Katrine has dumped her  moronic boyfriend with the ditzy smile who runs her fitness classes, and is drifting back towards her old flame, the complicated and devious spin doctor Kasper.

But Kasper has problems of his own.  He’s just been exposed in Laugeson’s book for leaking information that helped bring down the last government, and now the father who sexually abused him has just died and he is having him cremated in his pyjamas.

If all this sounds a little contrived, predictable  and somewhat clunky, that’s because it is.   Borgen isn’t without merit.   Sidse Babett Knudsen  puts in a terrifically engaging and appealing performance in creating the kind of prime minister that few countries have ever made and many would undoubtedly like.

The first few episodes were great, as they went into the cut and thrust of modern coalition politics and Nyborg’s attempts to form a government.  But since then the tension has drained away as the series has settled down to become something of a soap opera without any real linking device to sustain the drama or the kind of dark and labyrinthine plot twists that made The Killing so compelling.

One of the problems is that there just aren’t enough dead bodies.  In the last few years we have come to expect a pretty high body count from Scandinavian drama and crime writing. There was once a time when the outside world knew very little about Scandinavia and thought of it the way David Byrne once described heaven, as a place where nothing ever happens.

All that has changed thanks to Stieg Larssen, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, and Arnaldur Indridason – and the televised and film versions of their books.  Now Scandinavia has become a kind of literary earthly hell,  where serial killers, neo-Nazis, gangsters and paedophiles stalk their prey in a desolate landscape of perpetually grey skies, snow, ice, and weird Arctic sunlight.

Where we once thought of Abba, Saabs and Volvos, Swedish porn, social democracy and the Brothers Grimm, we now think of melancholy world-weary detectives like Wallander and his daughter Linda, taking solace from the dismal sea after solving  yet another unbelievably tragic and brutal crime in an Ystad that often seems like a suburb of Baghdad.

Or Indridason’s haggard and dour Detective-Inspector Erlunder and his screwed-up junkie daughter, dining on takeaways of sheep heads in his bleak flat as he trauls through an Icelandic criminal underworld that really doesn’t make you want to go to Iceland for your holidays.

Then there  are Mikail Blomqvist and Lizbeth Salander in The Millennium Trilogy, uncovering corruption, sadism and gothic savagery amongst the Swedish financial and political elite. Or Harry Hole hunting another freakish serial killer through Jo Nesbo’s snowbound Oslo.

All in all, fictional Scandinavia is a rough and inhospitable place.

This isn’t the first time Scandinavia has been associated with bleakness in the eyes of the outside world.  These are the countries that produced Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman after all, and Lars von Trier isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs either.  Long before that the classical Greek geographer once imagined the ‘antipodes’ as an icebound counterworld that was the opposite of everything civilized and human.

Herodotus once described the north as a region inhabited by a ‘one-eyed race of men’ and ‘gold-guarding griffins’, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of ‘The Seafarer’ once wrote of the North as a place of loneliness and exile, where  ‘ My feet were cast in icy bands/bound with frost/with frozen chains/and hardship groaned around my heart/hunger tore at my sea-weary soul’.

In 1555 the sixteenth century Swedish ecclesiastic and historian Olaus Magnus offered an alternative vision to these visions of the north as the barbaric antithesis of civilisation in his book Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus  (The History of the Northern Peoples).

Magnus presented Europeans with a vision of the North that they were entirely unfamiliar with.  He wrote lovingly of Scandinavia’s dark winters, its cultures and peoples, its animals and monsters.  He celebrated the beauty of snow, ice and winter and illustrated his text with striking woodcuts, of sea monsters:

 

 

 

Polar bears…

 

And what may well be the world’s first ever sketches of snowflakes…

Today, in the early 21st century, Scandinavian crime fiction has generated a new ‘idea of north’ in the eyes of the outside world.

Of course there are real events that have also disturbed the admittedly shallow image of Scandinavia as a placid region that was somehow detached from the rest of Europe, where even the prime minister could walk the streets without a bodyguard, whether its the unsolved assassination of Olaf Palme; the murder of Sweden’s foreign minister Anna Lindh; Iceland’s catastrophic contribution to the credit crunch crisis; and more recently Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage.

One one level therefore, the new fictional Scandinavia mirrors wider anxieties and perceptions that globalisation has made the world more dangerous and insecure than it once was and that no societies are immune to its darker manifestations.   And maybe we also take comfort from the fact that however screwed up our own countries are,  Mankell et al show places that are even worse.

And maybe that’s the problem with Borgen: it isn’t that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but for a public that has come to expect Scandinavia to provide dramatised mayhem, evil and savagery on a grand scale, it just isn’t rotten enough.[amazon_link asins=’0099546078′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’mattc55-20′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’588885cf-0ecc-11e9-82a2-e78e188402ee’]

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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