THE PROFOUND PRESCIENCE OF STIEG LARSSON
by Dan Burstein
Most recent crime novels don’t call out to be read a second time for at least a few years, if ever. But in the case of the Millennium trilogy, I couldn’t wait. There’s so much in Stieg Larsson’s books that, like a good film you immediately want to see again, and in which you “see so much more” the second time around, they proved even more interesting to me on the second read than they were when I rushed through them the first time, compelled along by the plot, the perils, and the cliffhangers. Taking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest together as the single whole trilogy that they compose, you can see that just below the surface of potboiler action there lie deep veins of Stieg Larsson’s cosmology. Lisbeth and Blomkvist walk the streets of Stockholm engaged in the plot of the book, while just beneath them, like the city’s vast tunnelbana metro system, Larsson elaborates, argues, and explores his social, political, moral, technological, economic, and psychological themes. His early-twenty-first-century critique of the world as we know it, as well as his vision for changing it, is interlaced with his plot. His worldview is there to reflect on, debate, and learn from—or not—at the reader’s discretion (although it occasionally surfaces in the reader’s face with a little too much didacticism). The best reviews of the Millennium trilogy highlight the breadth of Larsson’s vision. Writing in the Washington Post in May 2010, just after the publication of Hornet’s Nest, Patrick Anderson wondered out loud how these books, by an obscure and now deceased Swedish writer, who had never published much fiction before, came to capture the attention of the world. Arguing that, “The trilogy ranks among those novels that expand the horizons of popular fiction,” Anderson offered several reasons for the author’s posthumous success:
The most obvious is the brilliance of Larsson’s narrative. It’s a rich, exciting, suspenseful story, with a huge cast, and involves us deeply in Lisbeth’s fate, even as it carries us into all levels of Swedish society.
Another reason for the trilogy’s success is its political message. There are neo-Nazis, criminals and corporate villains in these books, but finally the enemy is corrupt government officials who wage war not only on individuals but on democracy itself. Readers throughout the world have recognized that rogue elements of government do operate in secret. To some degree, Larsson based his plot on real scandals in his own country, but the dangers he exposes are universal … .
The third reason, Anderson hypothesized, is the passionate attack on sexism.
All this—the political honesty, the rage at sexism, the suspense, the overpowering narrative, the focus on modern sexual mores, the sexual tension between Mikael and Lisbeth—has made the Millennium trilogy … not only a runaway commercial success but perhaps the best, most broadly focused examination of modern politics in popular fiction (emphasis added) … . To have written these three novels may have killed Larsson, but he left a monument behind, a modern masterpiece.
Like a twenty-first-century version of the best Norse sagas, Larsson’s tales are infinitely complex and feature a multiplicity of characters, plots, and subplots. Indeed, a family tree of the fictional Vanger family (worthy of a reader’s guide to a Tolstoy novel) is depicted in Tattoo to help keep all the players straight. But in addition to their plots, subplots, and clever mixture of crime and thriller genres, the books also tackle many real-world themes. Here are some of the most important ones.
Men Who Hate Women
Stieg Larsson’s stated intention was to call all three books Men Who Hate Women and then give each volume of the trilogy a relevant subtitle. As we know from published correspondence, Norstedts, the Swedish publisher, lobbied him to change this title, but he was insistent on it. In fact, he told his editors in essence that they could change many things about the books in editing, but not the title. The first book was published in Sweden accordingly. But the U.K. publisher who acquired the English-language publication rights after Larsson’s death (MacLehose/Quercus) changed the title to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In doing so, they made a brilliant commercial decision. But at the same time undercut the key statement the author was trying to make.
Larsson is often described as a feminist; Eva Gabrielsson, his partner in life, said he described himself that way ever since she first met him as a teenager in the early 1970s. But his feminism was a different, more political, and more passionate feminism than what most readers would think of as a modern male who calls himself a feminist. In the first place, he dared to paint a detailed, thorough, and hyperrealistic picture of the pervasiveness of violence, abuse, rape, and murder of women. He attacked Sweden’s sacred cow of its self-image and its complacent pride in its gender-equalizing achievements. Yes, almost half the Parliament is female and yes, huge progress has been made in empowering women over the last several decades. But Larsson refused to accept the general progress in society as a reason not to excoriate that society’s deficiencies. He tracked numerous cases of women beaten, brutalized, raped, murdered, and systematically denied their rights and the protection of the state even in genteel Sweden. Several well-known real-life cases are mirrored in the plots of his books.
We don’t know what Stieg Larsson would have thought if he had lived to learn about Göran Lindberg, but let’s just say when I read about this case in the summer of 2010, I thought I had fallen headfirst into a Larsson novel. Tragically, it was a true story. A former police chief and director of the Swedish National Police Academy, Lindberg presented himself as the consummate supporter of female members of the police force. He lectured and convened workshops designed to raise male policemen’s consciousness about working with their female partners, prevent sexual harassment, and make it easier for women to progress through police ranks. But when he was arrested in 2010, it was reported that even while he had been acting as such an enlightened figure, he had been a serial rapist (including raping a seventeen-year-old girl) and had been involved in procuring, prostitution, and various kinds of dehumanizing sexual acts with numerous women.
Larsson wanted us to “get it” that people like Lindberg are not all that unusual in our cultures. The amount of abuse and violence that takes place is much greater than what is reported; the conviction percentages for the crimes that are reported are way too low; and the jail sentences are way too short and trivial. There was no condescension or do-gooding in Larsson’s approach to feminism. He wanted readers to be uncomfortable. He wanted us to experience, even for just a brief moment, the brutalization and suffering faced by women who are violated and abused.
Stieg Larsson wanted to challenge us: how often do we see a horrific, gruesome story on TV about a serial rapist or killer, about a girl held hostage for years, about the operations of a sex-trafficking ring? Why don’t we connect the dots? Our culture becomes fascinated with tawdry tabloid stories about famous and powerful men who become involved with prostitutes and seamy relationships, or who abuse the women they live with. Whether it’s Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Senator David Vitter, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, or O. J. Simpson, we profess shock and decry the specific incidents, but we don’t face up to the pattern.
While I was researching this book, I came across a New York Times report on sex trafficking in the middle of Manhattan. “Americans tend to associate ‘modern slavery’ with illiterate girls in India or Cambodia. Yet there I was the other day, interviewing a college graduate who says she spent three years terrorized by pimps in a brothel in Midtown Manhattan,” wrote Nicholas Kristof in 2010, who proceeded to recount the story of Yumi Li (a nickname) who grew up in northeastern China but dreamed of going abroad. After university graduation in China, she became an accountant. Eventually she accepted an offer from an employment agent to be smuggled to New York, where she was supposed to be hired for a position using her accounting skills and paid $5,000 a month. Her relatives had to pledge their homes as collateral for her, in case she did not pay back the $50,000 smugglers’ fee from her earnings. But on arrival in New York, it turned out that Yumi was ordered to work in a brothel.
According to Kristof, “She says that the four men who ran the smuggling operation—all Chinese or South Koreans—took her into their office on 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan. They beat her with their fists (but did not hit her in the face, for that might damage her commercial value), gang-raped her and videotaped her naked in humiliating poses. For extra intimidation, they held a gun to her head.”
This is the kind of real-life story that occurs all too frequently in our world. Larsson is asking us: when are we going to stop treating these cases as despicable crimes at the margins of society, and face up to the fact that abuse of women is an epidemic at the heart of many advanced, Western countries—even those that have made great progress on jobs, rights, and economic opportunity for women?
Taking Responsibility, Refusing to Be the Victim
For Larsson, a conviction of a criminal in the courts or the passage of a new piece of crimes-against-women legislation is not enough. Lisbeth Salander is there to illustrate the alternative option. She makes it a rule not even to talk to the police. She solves problems her own way. She strikes such a nerve with so many at least in part because she takes the delivery of a severe Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye-type process of vengeance, retribution, and justice into her own hands.
She famously responds to Bjurman’s brutal rape not by going to the police and hoping to get him arrested, convicted, and sent to jail, but by carefully planning to turn his existence into a permanent living hell. She punishes him with more than a taste of his own painful and humiliating medicine and forces him to watch the replay of his own evil deeds and accept responsibility for them. She traumatizes and ruins him forever by branding him with the tattoo that will remind him and anyone else who ever gets close to him of exactly who and what he is every day for the rest of his life. For good measure, Bjurman, who once took for granted his power and control over her, is turned into her vassal doing her bidding and reporting regularly to the authorities on her good behavior.
Lisbeth is an avenging angel with the requisite combination of martial arts, computer hacking, and strategic thinking skills to seek and find just the right punishment for any man who harms her. In a few cases, such as Dr. Forbes in Fire, she even metes out justice to a man she doesn’t know who is about to do harm to a woman she doesn’t know.
A 92-pound misfit and outcast, she will not allow herself to be a victim. She does not want Blomkvist’s sympathy or pity—or anyone else’s, including yours. As Christopher Marcus, the creator of one of the first Larsson fan sites, says on the home page of SallysFriends.net (with Sally referring obviously to Salander):
[It is not easy to be] … friendly towards a troubled punk-hackergirl, who all too often ends up getting in the way of serial killers, corrupt politicians or just get shot by Soviet ex-spies … . Idiots … have found out—the hard way—that being friends with a girl who plays with fire is perhaps a bit more than they bargained for … !
Lisbeth Salander is not easy to befriend, and I don’t think any of us ever really will be able to. But we might do our best, again and again, to lend her a hand when she’s gotten herself into new trouble, treating her with dignity and respect. And even if we never get anything in return … well, maybe it will still be worth it. Maybe. With Lisbeth you never quite know for sure.
Larsson knows every woman can’t nor should be Lisbeth Salander. But in every chapter he finds ways to promote independent, powerful, morally centered women. Almost all the leading female characters in the book (Erika Berger, Monica Figuerola, Sonja Modig, Annika Giannini, Malin Eriksson, Miriam Wu, and Harriet Vanger) are generally strong, independent, professional, and righteous. Many of them also appear to be capable of defining and enjoying their own sexuality without becoming anyone’s possession. Larsson has sprinkled bits of history into the text designed to teach us about women warriors like Boudicca, the Celtic Queen who organized one of the bloodiest rebellions against the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, or even stories of women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, a true part of American history that very few Americans have ever heard about.
Larsson drew pieces of Lisbeth’s character from intriguing, innovative, and powerful female figures in popular culture. Pippi Longstocking is one such role model—physically strong, strong-willed, completely independent, nonconformist, always ready for adventure, defining her own sense of right and wrong, not accepting society’s standard parameters of normal behavior, and making no effort to play up to boys. Red-haired like Lisbeth, and living in a big house with an endowed budget provided by a fortune of somewhat mysterious origin (similar to Lisbeth in her apartment on Fiskargatan), Pippi is a clear inspiration to Larsson, as he himself highlighted in discussing the birth of the Lisbeth character in his own mind.
Another major influence on Lisbeth is Modesty Blaise. (I have Stieg Larsson to thank for my introduction to Modesty, whom I had never heard of prior to the research for this book.) Although never catching a huge cultural wave in the United States, the Modesty Blaise comic strips, novels, and films were very popular in the U.K. and Scandinavia in the 1960s. And Stieg Larsson, as a teenager, was very fond of this character who is sometimes described as a female James Bond. But there’s much more to Modesty’s story than this. Created by Peter O’Donnell, Modesty first appears in a post–World War II refugee camp as a young girl with no memory of her past. She survives difficult experiences and privations, attaching herself to Lob, a wandering refugee /scholar who is the equivalent of Palmgren in the Millennium trilogy. She learns to fight and live by her wits, but she also learns great knowledge and life lessons from Lob. In Tangier she takes over a criminal network and becomes rich as a result. Like Lisbeth with Blomkvist, Modesty connects with a somewhat older man (Willie Garvin) who is comfortable in his role as her junior partner. She’s always the star of the show.
Armed with her wealth from her days in The Network in Tangier (think: Hacker Republic), Modesty retires but is always willing to be called back into action, along with Willie, for a matter of particular interest. Modesty faces plenty of evildoers and is not afraid to kill, but like Lisbeth, she prefers not to. Instead, she fights her way out of situations with strategy, cunning, and skill.
Yet another female character Stieg drew on was the eponymous heroine from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1982 novel, Friday. Heinlein was Larsson’s favorite sf author, and in Friday, we find a character who has superhuman abilities (like Lisbeth) but faces prejudice from the human community (like Lisbeth).
Larsson promotes female authors of crime fiction, science fiction, and children’s books whenever he can. Like a well-constructed product placement, there are several scenes in which Blomkvist is relaxing by reading a crime novel that just happens to be written by a female crime writer. Among those specifically mentioned are Sara Paretsky, Dorothy Sayers, Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie, Astrid Lindgren, and Enid Blyton.
Hacking, Privacy, and WikiLeaks
Just after I started to conceive of this book in June 2010, I read a lengthy New Yorker profile of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. His was basically an unknown name to me then, although he was about to burst onto the world stage with a vengeance. Reading the profile of Assange, I thought: here is a real-world character who seems to be made out of equal parts Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander. Like Blomkvist, Assange thinks of himself as a crusading journalist. He is (or at least claims to be) dedicated to openness, transparency, and cracking the codes of official secrets, cabals, and conspiracies set up to hide the truth from the people in the name of state security. Like Lisbeth, Assange is a consummate hacker. Like her, he grew up as an odd child, on the run from an abusive stepfather, moving all the time, and without the traditional stabilizing influences of home, school, and family. Early personal computers, and early networks of teenage hackers, became his friends, just as Lisbeth is most socially comfortable when she is electronically connected to her Hacker Republic friends. Like Blomkvist to a degree, and like Lisbeth to an even greater degree, Assange developed his own moral code about whose secrets to hack and whose secrets to publish. The fact that Assange was recently conducting much of his activity from bases in Scandinavia made the parallelism even more compelling. When he later ended up on the run in London trying to escape extradition to Sweden over allegations involving rape, failure to use a condom, and nonconsensual sex, he seemed like even more of a Larsson creation.
The technology in the Millennium trilogy is old, because seven to nine years have passed since Stieg Larsson wrote his novels. The PowerBook and the Palm Tungsten that figure so prominently in the novels are ancient artifacts today. But Larsson envisioned all the key issues of contemporary cyberculture. He understood how easily networks could be compromised. He imagined a world in which someone like Lisbeth could know the inner thoughts, sexual perversions, bank account data, and travel plans of friend and foe alike.
The trilogy creates a culture in which traditional investigative reporting must be married up with cybersleuthing to find the truth. Larsson already knew that there really is no such thing as privacy anymore, despite the efforts of governments to continue to legislate it. When loose networks of real-life hackers decided in 2010 to attack credit card companies and others who had cooperated with government efforts to squelch WikiLeaks, they were mirroring a scene of Larsson’s creation at least seven years earlier where Lisbeth’s friends in the Hacker Republic offer to “shut down Stockholm” electronically if Swedish authorities continue to try to convict her for crimes she didn’t commit.
Larsson was reportedly not much of a technologist, other than being nearly attached at the fingertips to his laptop, the same way he was with the typewriter he received as a birthday gift when he was twelve. But he understood we are moving into a murky world where the same technology that can compromise our privacy also makes it possible to patrol and intervene in the activities of the dark forces of governments, corporations, and financial criminals. And from his voracious reading of science fiction, he could imagine both the powerful potential, as well as the dangers, of all the technology we have at our disposal today.
The Rise of the Extreme Right
Much of Stieg Larsson’s time, energy, and intellectual passion from the 1980s until his death in 2004 was spent documenting the rise of the extreme right in Sweden and warning about its threat to democracy. Not long before he died, he reiterated his longstanding concerns about the Sweden Democrats, a pleasant enough sounding name for a group that has historic ties to neo-Nazis and seems to believe that the solution to all social problems is to severely limit or totally prohibit immigration. Larsson expected the SDs might get enough votes to win seats in Parliament by the time of the 2006 election. He didn’t live to see that election, and the SD party did not get enough votes to qualify for Parliament then. But his forecast was prescient just the same: by September 2010, the SD party got enough votes to occupy twenty seats in the Swedish Parliament today.
Ruthless in his exposure of Nazis, neo-Nazis, and extremists of all kinds, Larsson is one of a small handful of Swedish writers to crack open the myth of Swedish World War II–era “neutrality.” As Blomkvist listens to Henrik Vanger tell the history of his dysfunctional family empire in Tattoo, the list of family members who are Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and anti-Semites—not just during World War II but even today—continues to grow. Larsson is using his fiction to enter into the Swedish political debate: Swedes may believe in the idea of an open, tolerant, egalitarian, social democratic state, but it is an illusion, a “castle made of air,” as the Swedish title for the third book implies. The ugly (and generally undiscussed) role of Swedish Hitler supporters in World War II, plus the growth of the white power movement, various anti-immigrant movements, and actual neo-Nazi parties in contemporary Sweden—not to mention the periodic waves of anti-immigrant violence and attacks—are all realities that Larsson believed should be confronted, not swept under the rug.
A significant subplot of Hornet’s Nest revolves around the inadequacies of the Swedish constitution. While there are unique flaws and unexplained contradictions in the Swedish system, Larsson’s point is a broader one (and could well be applied to the United States and other countries): on the one hand we love our constitution and we know it is the bedrock of our freedoms and our system of laws. But many of us also know that, however well it has done in regenerating its relevance for more than two centuries, we now face issues and problems where the constitution provides little guidance. How can societies move forward on the road of expanding economic opportunity and promoting tolerance and personal freedom when the machinery of the state is increasingly bureaucratic, if not completely polarized, and the treatment of women, immigrants, and minorities is increasingly barbaric? Can we continue to progress as a society—with all the dehumanizing and decivilizing forces all around us—without a willingness to consider overhauling the way our institutions and social systems actually work?
Of Millennials in Their Twenties and Boomers Facing their Fifties
One of Larsson’s themes I find most intriguing is the relationship between the middle-aged Blomkvist and the young Lisbeth. This relationship mirrors the one between the Western world’s aging Baby Boomer generation—which in Sweden, as in America and elsewhere, was the generation that was committed to “changing the world” in the 1960s and ’70s—and the rising younger generation of Boomer offspring, known in the U.S. as the Millennials.
Stieg Larsson was part of the Swedish 1960s generation that assumed that bringing about huge transformations in society was their role in life. By the turn of the millennium, it’s my guess that Larsson looked back with nostalgia on the great political and social upheavals of those days. The ideals, the comradeship, the energizing sense of meaning that the 1960s and ’70s had imbued in him were now memories more than realities. And he also knew that the world is a different place today, and that increasingly, its future depends not on the Blomkvists, but on the Lisbeths, who don’t see themselves on a generational mission to “change the world,” yet are more than ready to jump in to solve specific problems and right specific wrongs.
Stieg Larsson was passionate about his political causes. He had been an activist in the anti-Vietnam war movement, a Maoist, and a Trotskyist, all while still in his teenage years. As you can see in our photo section, even when his classmates went for a ski weekend, he stayed inside with his typewriter to write a commentary on the French student movement of 1968. In the late 1970s he would go to Eritrea, in the early ’80s to Grenada. He stayed involved with the Trotskyist group he had joined in his youth probably longer than he wanted to, because he was a person who took movements and parties and loyalties seriously, even while critiquing their rigidity or intolerance. But by the mid to late 1980s, the causes of the political left had hit a low tide in terms of popular support, or even interest. The Berlin Wall would fall, and there would be a rush of people all over the world toward Western-style capitalism, materialism, freedom, and democracy. Russia, China, and most other socialist countries, whatever different directions they had evolved in during the twentieth century, were almost all shifting gears and heading into various forms of capitalism. It was not a great time to be a leftist intellectual.
But then the waves of anti-immigrant violence hit Sweden and the neo-Nazis began their marginal but frightening ascendancy. By the mid ’90s, Stieg Larsson was reenergized around the causes of antiracism and antifascism and hard at work on Expo magazine. While Expo’s circulation was limited, its finances troubled, and its existence always threatened by right-wing attacks (Blomkvist’s Millennium is depicted in the books as far more influential than Expo ever was), my guess is that Expo was still an important, virtuous, and satisfying commitment for Larsson.
Eventually, however, the neo-Nazi movement peaked and quieted down. Expo, even after finding its voice and institutionalizing itself as the leading authority on the extreme right-wing danger, had trouble remaining selfsupporting.
That he was concerned about his approaching fiftieth birthday well before the actual date in 2004 is obvious from many indicators in the books. He was in his late forties when he started writing his novels. With Expo facing constant financial problems, with the neo-Nazis not quite as visible as they had been a few years before, and with decades of evidence confirming that no revolution was going to happen in Sweden (and with so many of the revolutions elsewhere that held such promise for a romantic like Larsson having demonstrably failed), Stieg turned back the clock of his onrushing halfcentury mark by looking to his younger years. It was then that he had written all manner of stories and sketches in his childhood notebooks and in the fanzines he and his friends dreamed up in the 1970s.
In talking with Robert Aschberg, I discovered that around this time (late 1990s, early 2000s), Stieg started sending Aschberg and a few other people short stories, dialogues, humor pieces, and a host of other extracts and commentaries, usually without explanation. These were his warm-up exercises for sitting down to write the Millennium trilogy, which he believed, from the moment he started, would be commercially successful and would lead to a “pension” plan for Eva and him.
All of this is guesswork on my part, but I imagine this scene: laptop on the table, cigarettes and coffee at hand, nostalgic pop music (Elvis, jazz, Debbie Harry, David Bowie) playing, Stieg Larsson sat back and reflected on his life experiences, including all he had lived through intellectually and politically, and in more than three decades of love and intimacy with Eva. He thought about the sordid news events of our world and the strengths and weaknesses of individual moral codes in an era where there often seems to be no properly understood norms of right and wrong, and where many of the institutions of society have become severely corrupted. He sat back and let his storytelling gifts take over. Soon he realized that writing crime novels was one of the most enjoyable experiences he had ever had. He was in the flow and it was coming to him fast and furiously. He brought his incredible characters to life and set them off down their own roads into his plots, allowing him to burrow into the story and create his layers of meaning and political and social substance beneath the surface.
There was no revolution in sight. But Stieg Larsson had the next best thing as he approached his fiftieth birthday—a three-book publishing contract that was going to allow him to reach more readers with his ideas than he ever could through Expo or any other kind of political journalism. News that his books had sold in the big German market, and that there was interest in a movie deal as well, also meant he could become his own benefactor. He and Eva were going to build a writer’s cottage of their own design and live together and write. He had finished the first three books and had already started on the fourth and fifth. He had ideas, notes, and plots for many, many more. In November 2004, he was thinking actively about Blomkvist and Salander in the arctic north of Canada’s Banks Island, where he had implied in correspondence the fourth book would be set.
He had discovered something even more exciting than a revolutionary movement: the unfettered power of his own imagination.