Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy Stimulus for Social Change in Sweden

It was a crisp winter night and standing by one of the many bridges that bring Sweden’s capital together, my brother and I clunked our cans of Stockholm’s finest lager, mixed with a flurry of white flakes, to celebrate the new year. As I gazed across the frozen waters of Lake Malaren from the peaceful City Hall, I wondered how our fellow drinkers in line at the state-controlled liquor store were faring this evening.

Just a day or two earlier we joined a queue for the Systembolaget  (the only outlet of alcohol above 3.5%), in which we recognized the deeply ingrained Scandinavian and socialist nature of Sweden: restrictions result in a line of tourists, sandwiched like sardines to get a drop of the hard stuff.

Alcohol isn’t the only controlled substance in Sweden. The Swedes operate a zero tolerance policy on drugs, focusing principally on prevention, treatment and control. Widespread drug testing is common; combined with individually appropriate penalties, Sweden has one of the lowest drug usage rates in the Western world.

Another law in Sweden is preventing avid readers of the Millennium Trilogy (comprised of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), set in the capital city Stockholm, from enjoying a fourth novel. Since his untimely death in 2004, author Stieg Larsson’s estate has been handled by his father and brother rather than his life partner, Eva Gabrielsson, due to lack of a proper will. Gabrielsson, it turns out, holds the key to the script for a new book. Unless she is given full rights to the Millennium series, she won’t hand over the key.

For the time being, we will have to make do with the existing collection. Translated into some thirty different languages, it has been a bestseller all over the world. I have often been on the “road” to Stockholm, however it was a trip across the Mediterranean to the deep desert of the Sinai when I was struck by the global phenomenon of Stieg Larsson. A fellow passenger was leafing through “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” and despite feeling as if a piece of my paradise was being revealed to the world, I embraced the novels with open arms.
It was at a vantage point on a cliff of Sodermalm overlooking the streaming city, where I noticed a number of clay wasps in the wall. At first it was seemed like a quirky trait of an artists’ community, but it was quickly brought to my attention that it was a reference to the codename of Lisbeth Salander.

She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her arm and another around her left ankle…a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade.

It was then when I began to realise that this Sweden, a sea of islands brought together by bridges, was a divided society. Over the years I have witnessed much of the bohemian south side (Sodermalm) where the tight side streets and narrow alleys reveal a plethora of culturally diverse bars and shops. It served as a working class neighbourhood since its birth in the 13th century, and has only recently become more populated by all classes of society.

The quaint cobble-stone streets, sheer cliffs and some of the most splendid panoramic views of the city (just deserts for a short but steep climb) have attracted people from all walks-of-life to set up camp here. Including the heroine of the Millennium Trilogy, Lisbeth Salander.

It was an out-of-the-way spot in the middle of Sodermalm island. There was no through traffic, which was fine with her. It was easy to observe who was moving about the area.

She sat at the desk in her office, enjoying the view of Saltsjon. Yes, this is a good set-up. I can work here.

This is where the thick of the action in the novels takes place.  It is not surprising to learn that Stieg Larsson was a resident before he passed away. It’s easy to imagine the cobweb of streets are the perfect setting for the secretive spy game of the underworld.

The central character in Larsson’s novels, Mikael Blomkvist, is a shrewd individual and his attic apartment on Bellmansgatan towers over the street-level houses, providing him with a overview of all the goings-on of the neighbourhood below.

What the hell. Is there some sort of spy convention on Bellmansgatan today?

Asked outside Blomkvist’s house, where Monica Figuerola of Sapo is spying on the Section, which is spying on Blomkvist, who in turn is spying on Figuerola, who then spots Detective Linder spying on the spies from the Section.

Beyond the Bellmansgatan towers (and taller) is the Kaknas Tower, the TV and radio transmissions tower. Standing at the grandiose height of more than 155 meters (500 feet), Kaknas Tower boasts a vista over all of the city’s 14 islands. However, while the view is extensive, there is a strict underground network of surveillance laws that ensure transmissions of all kinds, including Internet traffic, are monitored by the Swedish Defence Radio Establishment. The contrast leads me to question Sweden’s purportedly well- protected rights.

This is something Larsson was interested in, as Lisbeth Salander was created to carry a message about Swedish society. How are the people of  Sweden coping with their country’s government, legal system, and violence?

Events like the assassinations of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 and politician Anna Lindh in 2003 do not go unnoticed in Larsson’s novels. Sweden’s dark side is illustrated by realist portrayals of Neo-Nazis and sex-traffick workers by popular Scandinavian crime books. Books like these have put the country under huge scrutiny. The global success of the Millennium Trilogy and the much-loved Inspector Kurt Wallander (the brainchild of Henning Mankell) have helped invoked a world of interest in the Swedish society.

The Swedes have an excellent education system and you will be hard pushed to find a country with better maternity and paternity laws, among other successful regulations. A past fuelled by  Nazism, alcoholism and violence against women is difficult to snuff, especially when compelling crime novels like Larsson’s are critically acclaimed.

Our art can’t bring about social change, but you cannot have social change without arts (Henning Mankell)

As tourists, we have been blind-sided by the beauty of the city. We enjoy the delights of Stockholm’s narrowest street or smallest statue, in the maze of medieval buildings in Gamla Stan. In Gamla Stan, if you scratch under the surface of a building, you’ll discover a striking effort has been made to ensure it is protected.  Buildings must be restored in their original architectural style rather than destroyed.

Just as Salander and Blomkvist found territorial positions in order to purvey the capital, I continue to search for mine from vantage points like Globen, the largest spherical building in the world. This wave of crime publications merely adds to the intrigue and suspense inspiring me to travel me atop this floating city.

Sweden does is not alone in its struggle for a balanced society. Criminal action is sensationalised by writers and artists all over the world. Not to mention, it seems likely Swedish law will clamp down on the very issues Larsson’s books devolve. And whilst some people consider the alcohol laws too strict, I relished the opportunity to take my detoxify. Lithe as a spy, racing across a nearly frozen Lake Soderbysjon is all the freedom I need.

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