Erika Sigvardsdotter and Bradley L. Garrett on Torgny Lindgren

The realist magician from Västerbotten

Torgny Lindgren, born in 1938 in the village of Raggsjö, Västerbotten, Sweden, is the author of The Tree, published in this issue. One of the most beloved Swedish writers and a member of the Swedish Academy since 1991, Torgny has mesmerized Swedish readers for decades. However, English-language only readers have long been denied the pleasure of his work.

Lindgren's major breakthrough was the novel The Way of the Serpent, published in 1982. It depicts life, poverty, oppression and faith in a village in northern Sweden. The book, like much of Lindgren's work, is deeply spiritual and lined with an unshakable darkness. In the novel, the reputable and righteous protagonist, with God, faith and honour on his side, is bound to be cruel because he is solid and pure in relation to scripture and his truth; his righteousness causes him to be destructive to all living beings, including himself.

Often in his writing, Lindgren returns to this landscape of his childhood, the inland of northern Sweden—between the river valleys, below the mountains and beyond the seacoast. Through his regionally attuned writing, he has established a distinct Lindgrenian language with its own punctuation, rhythm and swing. The reader is unfailingly conveyed to the remote, dark, mysterious and beautiful place that Lindgren's characters occupy, although in his writing he has never described, in detail, any vista or landscape. Even so, Lindgren's work is indelibly imbued with the essence of place. Torgny's landscapes, too magical to be real yet too real not to exist, leave the reader suspended in perpetual anticipation of an empirical veracity that will never manifest.

His characters, like the landscapes they inhabit, are formidable and fantastic. We wish and hope but at the same time dread that they really are among the living, which according to Lindgren they are, or at least were; everything he writes is true, he said when we asked him in an interview. Lindgren tells us that he writes what has actually happened and what was actually told via the tradition of storytelling, and continues, "the tension between the magical and the real is what makes things interesting and memorable; in fact, the whole oral tradition builds on this tension."

In another of Lindgren's translated works, Sweetness [Hummelhonung], a travelling female writer and lecturer is trapped in the house of a man called Hadar because of a snowstorm. Hadar is skinny, salty, stern, dying from cancer and involved in a lifelong feud with his brother, the only other person living in the village where the three of them are forced to spend the winter. Like much of Lindgren's other writing, Sweetness is permeated with a dread—the unspeakable crimes of the past, decay, bodily fluids and creeping insanity, while at the same time invoking a powerful narrative of compassion, love and kindness. Sweetness features the type of twisted, complicated entanglements that are usually told to our generation in urban settings, yet here it is set in the snowy rural island of existential vehemence.

The insular village surrounded by oceans of billowing needle trees is one of the recurring themes in Lindgren's writing. In The Tree, this conceptual image is crucial. Isolated in time and space, the village comes to stand for the paradoxical pairing of insular, uncultivated narrow-mindedness and refined, perfected, material and social culture where everyone and everything knows its place and function. It is a seemingly eternal place, of great beauty and cultural depth, yet always on the brink of annihilation.

It's perhaps Lindgrenian to think that writers and poets sprout from the ground like red and yellow fruits somewhere in the vast forests of Västerbotten, but the region has, considering its vast geography and sparse demography, bred an unproportionally large number of novelists and poets—Sara Lidman and PO Enqvist being two others. A common trait of these three authors is a streak of heavy, benevolent fretfulness, of existential anxiety. Journalist and writer Ola Larsmo has dubbed this philosophical tendency a regional breed of existentialism, writing that, "the day you become solid, you will also be ready to stab your neighbour for the sake of solid truth. To live with a quiet angst over the fact that you don't know or understand the disposition of the world and what you are doing in it is, according to the Västerbottnian existentialism, the price you have to pay not to become a dangerous person." The battle of Lindgren's characters is never between good and evil, but between permeable and solid.

Whether its origins can be found in the eternal darkness and eternal light, the vast landscapes or, something else—something in the water, as they say—Northern Sweden clearly possesses a remarkable magic. The Tree is a story of that place, a place of the mystique of the living, the fine, perhaps non-existent dividing line between healing and smite, beauty and production, banality and magic.

Click here to read Torgny Lindgren's short story, The Tree, translated from the Swedish by Erika Sigvardsdotter and Bradley L. Garrett.