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Comment is free Read Stieg Larsson, the bestselling socialist militant

The Observer by Nick Cohen | Sunday, 13 September 2009 | Click here for original article


Graeme Atkinson provides an essential political service as the foreign editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. However necessary his work is, he never expected that he or any of his colleagues who dedicate their lives to the painstaking and occasionally dangerous task of exposing neo-Nazism would become celebrities. The global fame ofSearchlight's former Stockholm correspondent is thus filling him with an unexpected delight.

In the next fortnight, he will hear the name of his old friend Stieg Larsson everywhere. The bookshops are preparing to receive 320,000 hardback copies of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, the last volume of the extraordinarily popular Millennium trilogy. As the hype builds again, only three thoughts will make Atkinson wince: the memory of Larsson's death in 2004 at the miserably early age of 50; the knowledge that Sweden's sexist inheritance laws denied Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, a share of his posthumous royalties; and the irritation which always overcomes him whenever he hears the media describe his old comrade as a "liberal journalist".

Larsson was not a liberal or anything like one. He was a revolutionary socialist, but of a remarkably generous and democratic sort, from a radical tradition that is all but dead in Europe. The notion that the work of a writer who had once been the editor of Fjärde Internationalen, the journal of the Swedish section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, could move to every airport bookstall in the world would have once seemed absurd. At the very least, you might have assumed that there would be few connections between the two sides of his life. But I don't believe you can understand the appeal of Larsson without grasping an almost nostalgic yearning for the best of the half-forgotten politics he represented.

Before going any further, I must pepper this piece with caveats. No writer of fiction can be judged solely by political standards, not even the writer of political thrillers. After other British publishers had turned Larsson down, Christopher MacLehose bought the novels for the small London house Quercus, simply because he couldn't put them down. "I spend my life looking at books," he told me. "And when I find one that takes me over, I think that the best thing is to put it in the bookshops."

Writing in El País last week, Mario Vargas Llosa explained the Millennium trilogy's success by saying that Larsson had produced one of the great stories of "just avengers" in popular literature. He had read the 2,100 pages of the trilogy with "the same happiness and feverish excitement" with which he had read Dumas, Dickens and Hugo as a boy, "wondering as I turned each page, 'And now what's going to happen next?'"

Yet when you have agreed that Larsson was a master storyteller, I think you still have to accept that his ability to generate tension came from the political knowledge that he gained as a socialist militant.

Larsson had none of the characteristic difficulties of contemporary writers in conveying fear or acknowledging the existence of evil, which afflict even John le Carré. His activism meant he never shared the safe lives of the standard western author and a part of the attraction of his books for foreign readers is they show that Sweden is not and was not always the prosperous but dull social democratic haven we imagined. Larsson knew very well that Swedish "neutrality" in the Second World War was a fiction and that his country helped Hitler until the war turned against the Germans. His knowledge allowed him to create a realistic picture of the members of the Vanger family who move down the generations in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from supporting Nazism to abusing and murdering women.

As Larsson again knew from hard-won experience, far-right extremism did not disappear from Sweden after the war. His reports for Searchlightincluded gruesome accounts of Swedish neo-Nazis raiding banks for funds and executing the anti-fascist trade unionist Björn Söderberg. Every time he opened the door to walk out into the street, he had to overcome the dread that there were men out there who would assassinate him too for his exposés. Eva Gabrielsson told me that they had never married because in Sweden married couples had to make details of their address publicly available. A wedding ceremony would have been a security risk. Their caution was wise at the time but meant that Larsson's brother and father could pocket the royalties when he died because, as an unmarried widow, Eva was entitled to nothing under Swedish law.

The black comedy of the men making off with the money from the Millennium trilogy is almost too sharp to bear. For Larsson was a rare example of a male feminist and Lisbeth Salander is an even rarer example of a popular feminist heroine, who doesn't hate men, "just men who hate women".

Eva says that his feminism was entirely genuine. He was not one of the 1970s leftists who said the rights of women should take second place to the class struggle. More to the point, as he aged he didn't turn into a postmodern multiculturalist. He would never tone down criticisms of racism or misogyny if prejudice came from a different culture or a poor world regime or movement. Alongside his denunciations of white skinheads, he produced condemnations of "honour" killings. "It was the same thing to him," Eva told me. "If it was neo-Nazis or some Islamic group, it was the same violence, the same hatred."

To put it as mildly as I can, you have to stare very hard at today's Britain to find such a principled consistency. A political culture that allows the authorities to deport women asylum seekers to misogynist tyrannies and the Archbishop of Canterbury and lord chief justice to endorse sharia is not one where Larsson's views are welcome. But however unfashionable they are in politics, they gave Larsson's fiction power and drive. As a just avenger, Lisbeth Salander is a worthy successor to Edmond Dantès inThe Count of Monte Cristo, because Larsson was certain of the righteousness of her cause. To the huge pride and slight surprise of all who worked with him in the dusty offices of obscure anti-fascist journals, tens of millions of readers all over the world agree.


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