It’s an old Nordic myth that tells that where warmth and cold collide, creativity begins. When it comes to the art of storytelling, this still holds true for Scandinavia, having brought forth some of the most atmospheric tales cherished today. Drawing together heart-warming innocence and chilling realism in his novel The Merman, Carl-Johan Vallgren captures this peculiar creative spark with fidelity. But while having enjoyed more than two decades of success in his homeland of Sweden, UK readers have had little opportunity to get acquainted with this slightly enigmatic character. Until now. Edinburgh Book Review has had the pleasure of hearing his insights into writing, fairy tales, magic realism, and telepathy.
The Merman tells the story of a young teenage girl named Nella, who lives in a quiet little village on the Swedish west coast during the early 80s. Her idyllic surroundings are contrasted by the chaotic, tragic life made for her by her parents – with her mum being an apathetic alcoholic and her dad a convicted petty crook with a bad temper. She finds her only solace in caring for her fragile little brother Robbie, a kind-hearted, clumsy boy who gets picked on by the bullies at school.
As she contemplates her life, Nella clings to the notion that their lives will somehow make sense one day and change for the better – like in her brother’s story books. But while these stories have a beginning and an end, perhaps starting out bad, but getting better, their story deals with the despair of going around in circles, not being able to get out. Vallgren says:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: I grew up with Nordic fairy tales, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s, and with this novel I wanted it to be present as an echo – and to see if it was possibly to crossbreed psychological realism with ”fantastic” literature. In the classical fairy tale it’s easy to divide good from bad, and the stories travel from darkness to the bright. But in a dysfunctional family like Nella’s and Robbie’s, and when you live in poverty, this is simply not the case.
In fact, things go from bad to worse when their father is released from prison, and the relentless bullies turn to extortion. And just as everything seems to come crashing down, Nella discovers an unusual and otherworldly ally, which – while being in no position to help her – offers a unique magical kind of consolation and fellowship to the poor child.
The Merman’s emotional strength partly lies in Vallgren’s ability to imbue Nella’s often startlingly harsh perspective with surprising tenderness. Throughout, thanks to her internal monologues, we see her reflecting on heavy topics such as domestic violence, psychological abuse, bullying, despair and neglect. Very mature stuff, yet reflected on in a sincere, childlike manner. When asked whether this novel was meant to be read by children as well as adults, the writer explains that Nella’s story, while being intended one way, could be ultimately relevant across ages:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: My intention was to write for adults, and this was tricky, cause I couldn’t make Nella too smart without risking narrative in credibility, nor too childish because of the risk of losing control of the story and its events. A hard act of balance! But she is a really streetwise talented person, and I think she talks to all of us, young people as well as adults.
The story is set in the sleepy town of Falkenberg, where everything feels a bit delayed as if time lags a bit just on its latitude, getting a little further behind every year – or so Nella tells us. Throughout The Merman, time is of the essence – even being set in the years 1983-1984. This is evident from occasional references to eighties nostalgia, with the local shopping centre boasting posters for the release of Flashdance and shop displays with hi-tech Walkmans -, while Nella’s parents dance to the latest Stones record, and their classmates playing David Bowie at a party. Yet, while the story could have played out the same way in any decade, its author made a conscious decision here:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: I wanted – for the first time in my career – to write a story about young teenagers, and the easiest way was to place the story in a time when I, myself, was young. In my old school, my old hoods etc.. Easier to remember, easier to create atmosphere – and it is also easier to accept unusual events when they take place in the past (or in the future; fantasy, SF and so on). 1983-84 is also a period in time when history sort of stood still, before the great events that followed after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. And I sort of like that notion of timelessness as a writer.
From a reader’s point-of-view, there is ample opportunity to indulge in a sense nostalgia as well – particularly when having had the chance of watching Swedish television series while growing up. Innocent, slow moving, dark but inherently friendly, The Merman’s pastoral atmosphere is highly reminiscent of Astrid Lindgren’s work and its televised adaptations, having a distinctly similar plaintive and heart-warming feel. While he is reluctant to place The Merman in the same tradition in any conscious way, Vallgren does acknowledge Lindgren’s broader cultural impact:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: I think all writers in my generation in Sweden – whether they like it or not – are influenced by the works of Astrid Lindgren. And she is really the master of magic realism in children’s literature.
Vallgren’s fascination with working within the genre of magic realism is also tangible in The Merman’s forbearer, the somewhat laboriously titled The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot – originally released in Sweden in 2002. Touching upon similar subjects of strained friendships and love, cruelty and suffering, like The Merman it also shares the idea of a humane monster at the mercy of monstrous men – with both characters possessing telepathic powers. What triggers Vallgren to write about these topics? Are the two novels connected in some significant way? The writer thoughtfully counters those questions with questions of his own:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: What is normality, what is disability, and who takes the right to decide it? And how can you work with it in a piece of fiction? When it comes to ‘telepathic powers’, this is for me metaphoric; I’m interested in what’s behind language; pure being, thoughts, emotions? But with Hercules Barefoot I also wanted to write a modern gothic tale, and that genre requires certain things, like supernatural powers, fantastic gifts and so on. I wanted to create my own modernized gothic story in the footsteps of Hugo, Hoffman, and Mary Shelley.
Interestingly, apart from being an author, Vallgren also turns out to be an accomplished musician, having released no less than seven albums in Sweden since 1996. When asked about this marriage of talents, how his profession as a writer influences his musicianship, and whether UK fans can hope to see a Vallgren album in English one day, his answer is completely in character – short and simple:
Carl-Johan Vallgren: No, I don’t think I will ever write music in another language, it is simply too emotional to me. Foremost I regard myself as a storyteller, and some stories require 500 pages, others four minutes in a pop song.
Fortunately for us, we do have the prospect of enjoying more of the man’s work quite soon. Back in Sweden, Vallgren has just released the first novel in a series of ‘Noir’ thrillers, abandoning magical charm for the macabre, adding to his enigmatic persona by adopting the diabolical alias ‘Lucifer’. To what sinister end, we can only wonder, but for those who want to find out, the English release of the series’ first instalment – The Man In The Shadows – seems to be close at hand.