By Torgny Lindgren.
Translated from the Swedish by Tom Geddes
213 pages
London: Harper collins Publishers, 1991.
ISBN# 0-00-271381-0

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2004

This is a philosophical novel about truth; the philosophical problems of epistemology: What is truth? How do we know? My comments will center on my own understanding of what Torgny Lindgren is up to, which is not always obvious. I think his thesis is the paradoxical claim that there is only one true statement and that is: “the only statement that can be known to be true is this one; all others are doubtful.” In philosophical circles that claim no longer carries the power of paradox and confusion it once did; the philosophical distinction between an object language and metalanguage seems to have taken the edge off the seeming paradox. But Lindgren’s approach is not theoretical at all.

Rather, he seems to assume and then demonstrates the unreliability of truth claims, but worries much more about the question of – in the face of this uncertainty in our lives, how should we live and act? This is an existential skepticism in his case, not a theoretical exercise.

What is so marvelously brilliant, if not always clear, is the way Lindgren demonstrates these uncertainties, and the much less clear delineation of what this means in our lives.

The main plot is a set of shell games. Now you see it now you don’t. There are three main lines in the plot of these shifting realities:

  1. Paula the saint vs. Paula the devil vs. the post-Paula Paula.
  2. The question of forgery and authenticity in art, especially in relation to the (seemingly fictional) painting of an alleged Madonna by the actual Swedish painter, Nils von Dardel.
  3. The last main plot line of shifting and confusing realities is the nature of the relationship between Paula and the narrator, Theodore Marklund.

Marklund is a young frame-maker in a small Swedish town not too far from Stockholm. He forms a strange relationship with Paula, a young child who lives across the street. The two become inseparable and a life-long friendship ensues. Paula turns out to have a magnificent voice, strong, pitch-perfect and sweet. She sings in the local church choir and becomes a nearly ideal, angelic and innocent child. Marklund and Paula have a weird relationship between this across-the-street adult and the young girl.

In an unexplained and very surprising development, Paula’s mother “sells” Paula, literally giving her over for cash, to “Uncle Erland,” a music impresario who isn’t an “uncle” in the normal sense of the term at all, but a total stranger. He takes Paula off to Stockholm and a major transition begins. Not only does he “re-make” Paula physically by plastic surgery and by carefully crafted make-up, but he re-makes her music. From the magnificent innocent she is metamorphosed into the vigorous vamp and becomes a famous pop music star.

This is only one of the dozens of significant “transitions” which occur in the novel in which things and people which once appeared to be one thing turn out to be another. In the identity of Paula much is at stake. Who is she? Paula the innocent; Paula the vamp or some other Paula altogether? It turns out, as in most cases, it is the latter, things are undefined, unfinished, in process as well as in dispute.

Meanwhile, Marklund goes to a local charity auction preview. He notices a painting there and falls madly in love with it. He also recognizes that it is a “lost” masterpiece by the man he calls “Sweden’s greatest painter,” Nils von Dardel. There has been a long tradition for generations inside the Marklund family to put money, cash only, into a huge black footlocker. The future use of this money has never been specified, but Marklund takes all of it and then nearly doubles it with a bank loan. With this sizeable sum he wins the Dardel Madonna painting, but just by a few crowns over another bidder.

The painting changes Marklund’s life in two ways. At the personal level it becomes what he himself calls “the meaning of his life,” though it isn’t exactly clear why. At the public level it completely changes his life. He displays the painting in his shop window and becomes extremely famous as the owner of the valuable masterpiece, and he also becomes the target of an intensive investigation and persecution by the local tax office which eventually takes the painting away from him on the suspicion that he has been cheating on taxes.

Later on he has two people claim ownership of the painting. Dieder Goldman, whose mother seems to have been the model for the Madonna, claims it, and a former girl friend of Marklund, pleading a common-law legal relationship, claims ˝ of it. The theme of truth is nicely played in a minor key with the girl friend’s claim, since there are some technical grounds in which she might be able to make such a claim in court, but in fact she was quite an unfaithful girl friend who spent more time traveling around Europe with other men while she claims she was faithfully related to Marklund.

Eventually Marklund meets Goatee in Stockholm who is an art forger and he has an absolutely perfect copy he’s made of the Madonna (as well as many other famous art works) and he simply GIVES Marklund his copy so that he has the painting again, the supposed original still hanging in the tax office. Then a major issue comes into play: what difference is there between the alleged “original” and the alleged “copy” since no one can tell them apart unless one knows a secret identification which Goatee shares only with Marklund. The theme is to argue that the art WORK itself, the physical object, is one thing and the CONCEPT and EXECUTION of the artist is another. The two are, on Lindgren’s view, separable, and thus, speaking of the work of art itself, there is really no difference between the two paintings. Truth and true reality are again blurred.

The strange relationship between Marklund and Paula is difficult to unravel. In the early days it is the most unusual: a grown, though young adult, certainly in his 20s at least, is the dedicated and inseparable friend of a tiny and growing child. Then Paula goes off with Uncle Erland and Paula and Marklund seldom see each other, yet their relationship seems to grow closer and more intimate in this physical separation, as though he is the only one who still knows “the real” Paula, but it is increasingly unclear who that is.

Eventually the spell of Uncle Erland is broken by his death – suicide or murdered by Paula – this is never really too clear nor meant to be. Paula and Marklund are again united and Marklund now has BOTH paintings since the tax office has returned to him the original. They decide that Marklund and the “real” Paula – even the concept is so hopelessly blurred that it is by now meaningless – decide to have totally new lives and they go about this in a very very strange manner.

Nothing is ever what is seems to be. Things happen in the world, present themselves to us, but turn out to be other than what we have seen. Throughout the novel the concept of reality becomes increasingly unclear and blurred. This story sort of builds in a crescendo of blurred reality, a surrealistic haze, as if one had a bit too much to drink, and ideas were then out of focus, disconnected. What is reality? What is truth? What is it to praise truth?

The novel is a stunning read, more like a rhapsody for skepticism. There are dozens of marvelous little tidbits which I haven’t included in my very brief sketch of the main lines of the complex plot, but a few which brought great delight to me were:

It just goes on and on in an hysterical spiral, perhaps too much. Ultimately, we read life is “… the world as arrangement.”

The character who most seems to embrace the fullest freedom of Lindgren’s skepticism is Goatee, the art forger. When Marklund goes to his house and is given the forged Madonna which Goatee has painted, he lectures Marklund:

"You have to give authenticity a new and deeper meaning," he roared. "Unmask conventional bourgeois authenticity and at the same time raise and refine so-called falsehood to reveal a hitherto unknown and singular freedom, a state of indifference and relativity. I simply create freedom. Freedom from certainties and markets and the authorities. What are called forgeries are the only true expression of our age. Can you comprehend what I'm saying?"

I'm not sure that I understood him. But he was so touching and grandiloquent in his excitement that I really wanted to do my best, so I nodded and smiled at him as emphatically as I could. But it was no use.

"Don't you see that all the difficulties and horrors in our lives are based on our inability to come to terms with the problem of falsehood and authenticity?" he shrieked, his voice sliding up into a falsetto. "Only when we have levelled out or eradicated all the differences between genuine and false, only when we have created an existence for ourselves of definitive uncertainty and doubt, only then will we be able to live happily. Happily ever after."

Then he turned on the Madonna. He put her down on the floor and broke off the frame, he kicked the corners so that the glue gave way and the pins snapped, and he trampled on the mouldings till the gilding flaked off and the wood split. "If anyone should have appreciated me and understood me it was you," he cried. "When I saw what the authorities had done to you, I thought to myself, he is a gift to me, I shall make him happy, I shall give him back all that he has lost. He will be able to say to the authorities: `It doesn't matter what you take from me, you can go off with everything I have and everything I own, I will always be able to find a replacement.' But all you have to give me is your stupid provincial grin and a few miserable tears. You really are as simple as you say you are."

Another character who centrally embodies this duplicitous world of appearance and reality is the plastic surgeon who not only does both surgeries on Paula, but one on Marklund as well to give them totally new (physical) identities. He is also Paula’s lover. This phenomenal and complex thing here is that his art, his plastic surgery, creates alternative and non-true realities, yet in his non-professional world he appears to be a genuine lover for Paula. At the end of the novel when they have escaped to his secret laboratory for their final “remaking” this conversation takes place between the doctor and Marklund when the doctor celebrates his version of Christianity.

"This Christianity," I puffed and lisped through the tiny hole in the bandages, "what does it really mean to you?"

He took a good while to answer. His explanation was long and detailed. Greatly abridged, this is roughly what he said: "It's built up on an infinite number of ideas, each more crazy and absurd than the others, and if you examine them one by one you find nothing to believe in. But taken all together, those ideas give an absolutely true concept of life."

I think I understood what he meant. And for a thousandth of a second I too was a Christian.

In the end I am uncertain what to really make of Torgny Lindgren’s work. He had a great advantage with me, he is preaching to the choir, arguing a position to which I am already committed. Yet his mode of presenting the thesis is quite frantic, and the novel spins nearly out of control at times. That profound emotionalism of the message makes me nervous. On the other hand he creates so many images in so many aspects of life which illustrate the thesis that I am impressed with the concreteness of his argument.

Further, as I mentioned at the outset, the argument comes across much more as an existential investigation of how to live in the world as a thorough-going skeptic than it does a theoretical exercise in epistemology. I definitely LIKED the novel, no question. But is it really a great book? I’m still undecided. Perhaps, too, this simply means the book worked on me just the way Lindgren would have wished!

Bob Corbett

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