In the Shadow of a Crime (I skuggan av ett brott), a novel by Swedish writer Helena Henschen was translated into Macedonian by Ivica Celikovic and published by Antholog ten years after it received, in 2009, along with several other titles, the newly established European Prize for Literature.
In a promotional four-minute video made for the purpose of the award, Helena Henschen, sixty-nine at the time, is being driven by a taxi through the streets of Brussels. In the back seat, she says she published this, her first, work at the age of sixty. “I didn’t know what would happen to this book,” says the author, “but it happened to be a great success.” “What is the secret?” asked the woman talking to her in the car. “There was a secret, in my family,” said Henshen.
This family secret seems to be the basis of this novel’s plot: in 1932, the author’s uncle, Fredrik von Sydow, killed his father and his two maids, then killed his own wife and eventually commited suicide. The murdered father was a prominent citizen of his time, a district judge, director of the Stockholm police in the early twentieth century, a government representative in the upper house of parliament, president of the Swedish Employers’ Association, a central figure in the Swedish economy.
“No one could explain why Fredrik von Sydow killed his father and the two maids. Nobody knew and nowhere in the police investigation is the motive stated… The family does not talk about it. It is something secret and forbidden. It does not exist and it has never happened. Maybe that is why its existence is so obvious”, says the author, who seems to have undertaken with this book, in her mature years, to make a literary-documentary reconstruction of this event. In this reconstruction, she uses (and quotes) police arrest warrants, newspaper articles, healthcare records, court minutes, private correspondence, but also testimonies and conversations with closer and more distant family members, friends and acquaintances. The novel itself is divided into several parts: Preface and Introduction (the latter without a title), Fredrik’s Company, Sophie’s Life, Fredrik and Sophie, and the last section entitled Murder.
The previous brief description of the novel’s plot may lead the reader to believe that this is a crime novel, a romanticized story about the killer and his accomplice, some Swedish Bonnie and Clyde. After all, they were of a similar age and lived and died around the same period as the main protagonists Fredrik and Sophie. But when you get into the novel, the “it seems” part becomes clearer, because this work has many elements that make it different and deeper.
Thus, the very title says that this is not so much a novel about the crime, as a novel about everything else, hidden in its shadow. In the shadow of the crime, Henschen paints a personal, tedious family history, and contrasts it with the larger, more famous history of Sweden, and to some extent Europe, in the first third of the twentieth century. In this way, she contrasts the public, social discourse with the personal, private narrative (something that often happens with women writers, something that may be one of the main determinants of women’s writing).
In that personal history, in family constellations, in intimate stories, I can point out several motives. First, it is the several times repeated, diachronically and synchronously recycled, but always equally emotionally tormenting motive of the estranged mother: “Our lives are variations on the same topic: A mother who disappears abruptly. It connects our family.” The difficult relationship of the child with the estranged, absent mother is a leitmotif in this family, an image that is repeated and transmitted for generations, almost as a genetic message for future generations. Even the mother of the killer, Fredrik, spends much of her life in mental hospitals: “Her soul is locked in a cocoon of fear and no one can touch her inside. Fredrik has a mother, but her heart is closed.”
This motive is conditioned on and related to the social role that women had (in this case) in Sweden. This is, after all, the time of Freud, who said that anatomy is destiny. This is also the period when his book Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, 1930) was published, in which Freud wrote about the conflict between social norms and constraints on the one hand, and the needs and instincts of the individual on the other. This is a time when men deal with the great narratives, with socially important matters (the rise of German fascism, the great economic crisis). And the murdered father, “Hjalmar von Sydow is an important person in these serious times. He is one of those who should establish order”, while women are expected, in a complete economic dependence on men, to deal only with family affairs. By getting married, as Henschen says, women became shadows of themselves, “they were diagnosed with weak nerves or neurasthenia, while the real diagnosis could be powerlessness.”
Thus, we see here a life in which social and family roles are defined within strictly defined frameworks (the husband must provide for the family financially, the wife must give birth to children within the marriage, the children must obediently accept the life paths destined for them, and “the task of adults is to hinder the child’s will, otherwise the child will grow into a wild creature that is impossible to control.” If these frameworks are broken, both society and the family deal cruelly with the perpetrators. The powerlessness or inability of the characters from Henshen’s family past to adapt to such restraints constitute the tragic inevitability that drives them into madness, flight, and, ultimately, murder and suicide.
I would like to go back somewhere at the beginning of what I was saying. Several times I said “it seems” when I was talking about what actually this novel is not. I can now say that, in the shadow of the crime, as opposed to the superficial story of Fredrik and Sophie, this novel is in fact an autobiographical and self-referential narrative of the very search for the story, of the process of research and writing. As such, it is also an intimate, therapeutic cleansing of the author. Describing these processes, she begins with the view that the long-running cover-up of the family tragedy, or rather, the family shame, is simply too great for her to continue to ignore: “Shadows are born in silence and shame,” she said, adding: “I became the bearer of the Event, of the unanswered question, of the never revealed family secret, and I had to sit on that black egg that would not crack… But it would take more than forty years before I gathered strength to go into search of archives and libraries and request to be provided with all the documents about the murder.”
Therefore, I can conclude that the author is present in her text as much, if not more, than her characters. She speaks for herself as much as she leaves them to speak for themselves. “The book is my personal interpretation of what happened, but the search for what happened and how it affected the survivors is theirs,” she says in the very preface. In that discovery, or rather, interpretation of the lives of her ancestors, Henschen also discovers and interprets her complicated relationship with her mother, insufficient communication, alienation and absence, denial of past trauma.
Writing and deconstructing the secrets, not only those of the family, but also her own, she frees herself, becomes her own, or truly becomes a writer, just as Borges in his essay “Blindness” says that “A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of the artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art.”
12 September 2019, Antolog Bookshop, Skopje