Friday, August 6, 2010

Dragons, Fires And Hornets

I'm almost through Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. When I was younger I used to read crime novels obsessively, but eventually, for whatever reason, found myself discarding the genre. After numerous enthusiastic friends kept telling me that I had to read Larsson's novels, I gave in. The trusty secondhand bookshop down the road happened to have all three books in stock. I had no excuse.

I'm going to say upfront that, one of the reasons I found the books so compelling is because of the setting. Larsson manages to combine remote Swedish settings with finely detailed (but not overwhelming) descriptions of Stockholm, adding to the mix the danger and excitement of journalism with one mission only: to expose corrupt individuals and governments - something I have a soft spot for.

Then there is Lisbeth Salander. Somewhere inside me a perverse pleasure bubbles up whenever a male author creates such a fantastically complex female character. I can't explain it, neither do I wish to. Larsson creates between Lisbeth's actions and the details of her traumatic past an unspoken dialogue between reader and text that can be approached on so many levels that the potential for discussion is endless. Whether you choose to approach the themes of the trilogy from a philosophical, moral, social or psychological context, you're bound to come up with some uncomfortable questions. Isn't that what good books should do?

This is one of the key functions of Larsson's series; through Lisbeth Salander, the novels aim to communicate our perceptions of not only individual responsibility, but the effects our decisions have on those who are denied the same rights.

Lisbeth's actions throughout the three novels are based on one thing: self-preservation. Having suffered unspeakably for most of her life at the hands of the very people who should have been protecting her, she trusts no-one. Her methods are for the most part against the law. What sets her apart from an ordinary "grab-and-dash" kind of crook is that Lisbeth always takes responsibility for her actions. She lives by her own moral code, but it is a code that nonetheless has consequences . When one starts weighing up the difference between what Salander does to get her way and what has been done to Salander to turn her into the person she has become, things get very muddled from a moral and ethical perspective.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Salander is that, despite everything she has endured, she never comes across as a victim. Her experiences are of the kind that could easily break the strongest constitution, both mentally and physically. Lisbeth Salander never uses this as a defense for her actions. She merely does what she thinks is right. Whether those beliefs are shaped by the experiences she has had to endure is another of the intricate themes contained within the novels.

A note of interest: The first installment in the trilogy, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", was changed in name from its original Swedish title, "Män som hatar kvinnor – "Men Who Hate Women". I'm not surprised at the change. Make no mistake, these books are brutal in their depiction of the violence perpetrated by men against women. But I wonder if a novel - and particularly a film - would have been as successful in the oh-so-Hollywood-obsessed English mainstream market if the original title had remained. It implies that society, for all its constant patting-on-the-back about gender equality and equal rights continues to fail not only women, but everyone who doesn't allow themselves to be pigeonholed.

1 comment:

Kathleen Bradean said...

Lisabet Salander in one of the most compelling characters to lunge off the page in a long time. Larrson's narrative style is a bit hard to take page after page, and good god man, do we need to know that the great-grandmother of the woman in the deli was a Nazi sympathizer when we'll never see her again in this book? But all is forgiven when there's a character who does the things we wish we could get away with. I read it to see what Lisabet would do next, not to solve the puzzle.