Finally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.
“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.
Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).
So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.
The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.
Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.
There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.
I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.