Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Niklas Rådström

The Swedish poet, novelist and playwright Niklas Rådström has written a play about the abduction and murder of the Merseyside toddler James Bulger in 1993 by two ten-year-old boys. The English version, "Monsters", is having its UK premiere at the Arcola, London E8. In today's Guardian, the author is interviewed by Lyn Gardner.
How do you turn a crime like that into art without being accused of feeding off other people's pain and misery?

"I thought long and hard," says Rådström. "I thought for five or six years. There is no new information in the play; everything is on public record. If the media can give it miles of column inches, why shouldn't theatre deal with it?... "With every word I wrote, I tried to imagine how it might be if the parents of James Bulger, or the parents of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were in the audience. Theatre is unique in the way that it brings artists and audiences together in a room and enables them to have a conversation."

- - - -

Rådström insists he isn't trying to upset people: "The intention is always to create a space for dialogue ... In Scandinavia, audiences didn't want to leave, they wanted to talk, because the play had given them permission to think about what had happened, and why and what they might be able to do about it ..."
I met Rådström at a conference many years ago when his main claim to fame was being the son of Pär Rådström. Having outlived his father (who died at 38) by a good few years, he has now pulled off the Martin Amis trick of being more famous than his father ever was.



David McDuff said...

What with all this child murder and child abuse (Maria Peura, etc.), we're getting quite morbid on this blog... :-)

Maybe Nordic authors have an inborn penchant for the gloomy side of life.

But Rådström has chosen a perfectly valid subject to write about.

Time for something more cheerful, perhaps - Eric, do you have anything that will cheer us up?

Eric Dickens said...

What about an Estonian poet who committed suicide? What would Tommy Handley have said. "It's being so cheerful that keeps you going", I suppose. And this Estonian poet never dealt with either child murder or child abuse in his work! I'm working on it. And despite his ultimate fate, his poetry collection is called "Elulootus", i.e. "Hope of Life". You can't accuse that title of being dark and foreboding.

Actually, I don't think the Scandinavians are always particularly doom-laden and morbidistic. I think that they are rather typecast in that mode. Actually the suicide statistics for Hungarians exceed those of gloomy old Finland. And we think of Hungarians as wild paprika people, drinking Tokay and eating sausages; rather a contrast to the Nordic icicles moping in huts. And yet...

I also associate Niklas with Pär. I kept forgetting which was the father, which the son, as I never read much of either.

Harry said...

Well, Eric, if Scandinavians are "rather typecast" in the morbid mode, maybe they only have themselves to blame. Coming back to your favourite bugbear - the current popularity of Scandinavian crime writers, who seem to have a blank cheque relationship with British publishers - they wouldn't be so popular with said publishers if they weren't so popular at home first, scoring big sales and winning book awards - ergo, Scandinavians must like reading about themselves as pathological killers or dysfunctional cops (or horribly mutilated corpses).

I must confess to buying examples of this genre myself, if only so that I can tut-tut about them afterwards. I've just taken an armful off my bookshelves to look at the titles and cover illustrations, all of which seem designed to reinforce the aforesaid Scandinavian stereotypes.

Åke Edwardsson's "Frozen Tracks", Kerstin Ekman's "Under the Snow" and Arnaldur Indriðason's "Silence of the Grave" all have a snow scene on the cover. Spooky frozen lakes as cover designs are popular too - Kerstin Ekman's "Blackwater", Karin Fossum's "Don't Look Back", Arnaldur Indriðason's "The Draining Lake", Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's "Last Rituals" ... And as for the plots of these books, well, by the time you've ploughed through a couple of them you start looking forward to re-reading "The Wind in the Willows" or "The House at Pooh Corner".


David McDuff said...

I wonder about Nordic humour, for I seem to have neglected it in my reading. Is there such a literary genre in the Nordic countries?

Harry said...

You didn't neglect it, you just didn't find it. Laurie Thompson tried to persuade me once that there is humour in Henning Mankell's Wallander stories, but it must be just a trace element that I haven't detected.

Jo då, there is plenty of earthy peasant humour in the likes of Ivar Lo-Johansson, and I distinctly remember some slapstick in Frans Bengtsson's "Röde Orm". And Stig Claesson, whose books I used to review regularly for SBR, specialises in mordant humour about the delights of ageing, and he has his old gubbar taking the piss out of Swedish bureaucracy in a very un-Swedish way.


Eric Dickens said...

My experience of humour on TV and in the theatre in Sweden, Finland and Estonia is that it is often heavy-handed, piss-shit-&-fart type of unsubtle stuff (remember the stairs & fart scene in Fanny & Alexander?). It is of true Germanic slapstick provenance (the Dutch and Germans are similar), as a counter to the national propensity for being strait-laced on weekdays.

In other words, the humour goes over the top, in the same way that the desperately hard-working Scandinavians overdo the booze on Friday and Saturday nights as a kind of safety valve.

Authors with the subtle, wry type of humour, such as Tove Jansson, are few and far between. And none of these countries have a magazine such as Private Eye, Le Canard Enchaîné, National Lampoon, Przekrój, to name random ones. Amazingly, Grönköpings Veckoblad is still going after a century or so, but I never really find it funny, but clunky. They're still flogging their Transpiranto jokes, although the dead horse must have turned into a skeleton by now. See:

In Finland, M.A. Numminen used to sing songs in a squeaky voice and could be funny, even witty, but still no world-beater. And in Sweden films like Äppelkriget were also daubed rather than painted. In Estonia, humorous novelist Andrus Kivirähk is someone who is on a different wavelength to myself.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but I've not discovered the kernel of Scandinavian and Estonian humour. Yet.

David McDuff said...

I suppose Kierkegaard was one of the few practitioners of genuine humour in classical Nordic literature - but his humour is a bit like Nietzsche's, marked by a painful irony and sarcasm. And it's somehow hard to think of K. as a "humorist" in the ordinary sense.

Harry said...

In my Old Norse days I used to enjoy some of the more ribald humour in the Icelandic sagas, especially in my tutorial group when we had to translate Njáls Saga extempore for our tutor, a rather shy, demure young lady. Njál's son Skarp-Heðin has one of the foulest tongues in Scandinavian literature, and was the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross of his day, except that his misplaced witticisms got people killed (including, eventually, himself).

I've been looking in vain in my copy of Njála for a scene I remember vividly, for it came up in our tutorial and made our tutor blush. Skarp-Heðin sits smiling benignly at the Alƥing while one of his enemies berates him, then comments, at the end of the diatribe - I paraphrase from memory - 'well, at least I don't sit in a corner while other people are speaking, rubbing my thighs together to give myself a thrill'.

At another session of the Alƥing, somebody says "Who is that big baleful man ... the one with the pale, sharp, ill-starred, evil look?"

"I am called Skarp-Heðin", he replied, "and you have no cause to pick on me, an innocent man, with your insults ... You would be better employed picking out of your teeth the bits of mare's arse you ate before you came here - your shepherd saw you at it, and was amazed at such disgusting behaviour."

When Thorkel blows his top, Skarp-Heðin goes over and waves his sword in his face. "Thorkel sheathed his sword and sat down promptly. It was the only time in his life that such a thing happened."

You can almost visualise the scene in a television comedy show. John Cleese would have made a great Skarp-Heðin.

A few pages later, Flosi jeers at Skarp-Heðin's father Njál, calling him "Old Beardless" and casting aspersions on his manliness.

Skarp-Heðin grabs Flosi's cloak and flings a pair of trousers at him, "saying that he would have greater need of them than a cloak."

"Why should I need them more?" asked Flosi.

Skarp-Heðin replied, "You certainly will if you are, as I have heard, the mistress of the Svinafell Troll, who uses you as a woman every ninth night."

Not surprisingly, Skarp-Heðin doesn't live to a ripe and happy old age.

But if you want a bit of dry, unaggressive humour, it's hard to beat my favourite saga character, Thorsteinn Síðu-Hallsson, who has a cameo role at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Fleeing with his troops from the victorious Irish, Thorsteinn stops to bend over and tie his shoe thong, and is taken prisoner. Asked why he didn't just kick the shoe off and keep running, Thorsteinn replies with the immortal line: "ƥví at ek tek eigi heim i kveld, ƥar sem ek á heima út á Íslandi" (Because I cannot reach home tonight, for my home is out in Iceland).

Thorsteinn is spared and allowed to leave for the North. So a sense of humour can help you save your life as well as lose it.


Eric Dickens said...

I can imagine Fáwlty Heðin in Basil's Saga, and the old sarcast Kierkegaard. But these are both rather a long time ago.

I have remembered one contemporary of mine who can be quite amusing in her stories, and that is Inger Edelfeldt. But there too, there is often insecurity and not a little Angst. Jaan Kross also has passages of gentle humour. But the North doesn't necessarily have many writers with the wit of, say, Oscar Wilde or Anthony Powell, or the sheer zaniness of a Witkiewicz play. I mostly tend to look for other qualities than humour when reading Nordic-Baltic. Finally, one poet with some fine ironic and absurd humour is the Estonian Elo Viiding, as described elsewhere on this blog.

David McDuff said...

>>the old sarcast Kierkegaard

The trouble is, he wasn't that old - I mean, he died in his early 40s. And he was really much more of an ironist than a sarcast. What's a bit depressing is that someone so young could be so cheesed off with his fellow human beings - yet he did succeed in making humorous fun of them. A lot more entertainingly than Piet Hein, in my opinion. :-)

Unknown said...

Hi Harry,

Emma, one of our reviewers at Spoonfed Media, recently went to the UK premier and wrote up a review. We thought you and your readers may find it interested. You can see it at the link below.