Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Crisis and uncertainty – a Swedish perspective

Anna Watz

During the current coronavirus crisis, the whole world has been forced quickly to become accustomed to living in a constant state of uncertainty and unpredictability. Parameters shift from one day to the next. The longed-for day when we will be able to break our isolation, visit our elderly loved ones or return to some level of everyday normalcy, however compromised, seems to be disappearing ever further into the future. We do not yet know if the measures we have taken so far will turn out to have been the best ones to limit the spread of the virus; we do not even know if our evaluations of facts and numbers are reliable – the same set of data seems to lead to a multitude of different interpretations and conclusions depending on the perspective one adopts. Many of us cannot recall an earlier time in our lives when the precarity of life has been so acutely intertwined with uncertainty. 
Sweden has not participated in a war since 1814 and thus eluded the devastation in the wake of World Wars I and II that became a foundational part of the collective memory of much of the Western world. No soldiers returned to Sweden from the front in 1918; what did arrive, however, was an unbidden deadly disease: the Spanish flu. During this pandemic, as well as the much longer-lasting period when tuberculosis ravaged Sweden, it was the northern regions of the country that suffered worst. Torgny Lindgren’s allegorical 2002 novel Pölsan (translated into English by Tom Geddes as Hash) – one of the most poetic and poignant texts about illness in the Swedish language – is set in the northern-most part of the country in the late 1940s, just before the state mass vaccination programme that would eventually all but eradicate tuberculosis in Sweden was instituted. In the novel, the threat of contagion is everywhere; neighbours, animals, houses, bedclothes and even food are potential carriers of the dreaded disease. Even the local staple food, pölsa – a Swedish version of hash consisting of hacked meat and offal from pigs, cows or sheep and cooked for days into a grey or dark-red pulp – proves to be contagious, and in the end infects the protagonist Lars Högström, who thought himself to be immune, having suffered from the illness his entire adolescence but subsequently fully recovered. Immunity – the belief that one is invincible – functions in the text as a metaphor for the certainty that is ultimately proven to be an unattainable fantasy. ‘He who is immune cannot be touched or harmed’, the narrator states early in the novel, although as it turns out, no such invulnerability exists, even for those who thought they wore an armour of protection against infection, like Lars.  
This tension between invincibility and precarity is mirrored in the two narrative layers and temporalities that structure Pölsan– the framing narrative focused on the 107-year-old Manfred Marklund as he attempts to finish a news report he started writing for the local newspaper fifty-three years previously and the actual report itself, which tells the story (within the story) about Lars in 1948. The framing narrative gestures not only towards the inscription of uncertainty and vulnerability in the collective unconscious of Manfred’s generation, but it also makes clear that the narrative we are presented with might not be reliable – in fact, as it turns out, Manfred, the author of the story within the story, was fired from his work at the newspaper in 1948 for recording occurrences that had never happened. Despite the fact that we thus realise that the story of Lars might be coloured by its author’s imagination, we understand that this narrative – and by extension the novel – is more than a commentary about the devastating effects of illness and infection; it is ultimately a statement about how uncertainty – whether in relation to the threat of illness or regarding how we subsequently interpret our and others’ experiences and put them into language – is a key facet of what it means to be human. 
Pölsan is a powerful reminder that uncertainty and unpredictability are integral aspects of human life, whether one is situated in the sparsely populated areas of northern Sweden or in the bustling streets of New York City. When the time comes to evaluate the success of our respective strategies to limit the spread of the coronavirus and protect human lives, such reminders will serve a crucial role in fostering connection and compassion between the people of the world, rather than placing blame.

About The Author

Anna Watz

Anna Watz holds a PhD from Uppsala University and an MA from the University of East Anglia. Her current research (funded by the Swedish Research Council, 2019-2022) examines the in...

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