For fifty years Sven Lindqvist’s books have been the centre of literary and political controversy in Sweden. Lindqvist is the author of 33 books of travel, essay, reportage and autobiography. Fifteen of them have appeared in altogether 140 editions in 15 languages.
Sven Lindqvist started his literary career aged 23 with A Proposal (1955), an essay in 39 short, numbered chapters on his experience of manual labour in a Swedish creosote factory. The proposal of the title was a program for using the skills of a novelist to create a new kind of essay, non-fictional, documentary, problem-oriented.
Advertising is Lethal, two years later, still in print, is a furious attack on consumerism. The newly married Sven resisted a high-consuming life-style pressed upon him by marketing and media.
Lindqvist’s and his photographer wife Cecilia’s account of student life in Peking during the famine years 1961-62 was carried by leading newspapers all over the world and the book, China in Crisis (1963), appeared in many languages.
During his studies at Peking University Lindqvist was fascinated by a Tang dynasty painter famous for his murals: Wu Tao-tzu. Having just finished a wall-painting, he suddenly clapped his hands and a gate in the painting opened. Wu Tao-tzu entered into his art, the gate closing behind him, and he was never seen again. The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu (1967), is the story of what happened to him in there. The Swedish original of this modern classic has never been out of print. It is also available on line at www.litteraturbanken.se , An English edition was published by Granta (2012).
The Shadow (1972) is a portrait of a continent, with Che Guevara on lit-de-parade in Vallegrande as its centre piece. Land and Power in South America (1979) probes in depth the all important question of the power of the big landholders to resist and delay land reform. Both were published by Penguin.
Dig where you stand (1978) is a handbook for industrial workers on how to research the history of their workplace, their jobs and the capital that employs them. The first Swedish edition unexpectedly sold out in a couple of days. Eventually the book created more than ten thousand research groups in five countries. The title phrase became proverbial. An unpublished English translation is available in manuscript.
Using the same documentary method Lindqvist next approached the subject of love and marriage. In Diary of a Lover and Diary of a Married Man (1981-82) he rereads and reremembers his early diaries and how boyish impotence created a love story that was still alive and kicking 30 years later.
In Bench Press (original 1988, translation 2003) we meet the Married Man divorced, depressed but eager to learn what the gym has to teach him about his body, his dreams and his childhood. Spectator reviewer Michael Glower wrote: “This brief, aphoristic, autobiographical essay leads us gently through that conversion experience”.
As a boy the bodybuilder was planning a great expedition into the Sahara. On the last pages of Bench Press he leaves the gym and sets out for the desert. On the first pages of Desert Divers he arrives in Africa and goes on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of writers he read as a boy: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pierre Loti, André Gide. ”A poem to the Sahara, and those whom it has obsessed; language as bare and hard as sand and gravel”, wrote Guardian. Literary Review called the book “a small oasis in a desert of mediocrity”. And Sunday Times wrote: “This is writing with a conscience that once again shows the enormous and provocative possibilities of the travel book”.
During the rest of his desert journey Lindqvist focuses on a single sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Why did Kurtz, the great colonialist, finish his report on Europe’s civilising mission in Africa with the words “Exterminate all the brutes”? Why did Conrad make these words emblematic for the fate of indigenous peoples during European world expansion? In Exterminate All the Brutes Lindqvist seeks the answer in Conrad’s recent history.
According to Foreign Affairs, Lindqvist finds “the hold of social Darwinism over proceeding generations, among whom there were reputable intellectual defenders of genocide ¾ the extermination of the ‘less fit’ peoples whose lands and resources were coveted by more powerful rivals”. Lindqvist himself puts it more bluntly: “Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested”.
“Here is a book that has come out of risk and years of thought”, wrote John Berger. “This powerful book has haunted me for months,” said Sunday Times. “Lindqvist’s book is virtually unprecedented”, added Independent. “It is also a perfect illustration of reading and criticism as lived, as opposed to desk-bound activities.”
The Swedish original, Utrota varenda jävel, has never been out of print and is also available on line in www.litteraturbanken.se . The latest UK edition combines Desert Divers with Exterminate All the Brutes in one volume, called Saharan Journey (2012). The latest American edition combines Exterminate All The Brutes with Terra Nullius in one volume called The Dead Do Not Die (2014).
How could European expansion over the Americas, Africa, Siberia, Australia and the Pacific Islands, inevitably, as it seemed, followed by the extermination of masses of the original inhabitants – how could this all be explained and defended?
Racism was the answer. The “inferior races” were said to be doomed to extinction. Their brains were too big or not big enough, they sweated too little or too much, the breasts of their women were too long. In The Scull Measurer’s Mistake (1997) Lindqvist profiles twenty-two eighteenth- and nineteenth century figures who stood up against this prevailing racist ideology.
A History of Bombing (2001) is a study of the causes and consequences of aerial bombardment. The book is structured as 399 short numbered paragraphs arranged into twenty-two parallel and chronological sections. Lindqvist’s main theme is that aerial bombardment developed in the framework of colonial warfare, where the targeting of civilians was a matter of course. Bombing never outgrew this brutal colonial heritage.
“It is learned, yet concise; doom-laden, yet light. A sobering and important argument… Lindqvist has written an exceptionally good book”. New Statesman
“Skilfully blending personal reminiscences and well-etched miniatures of the rationale, impact and culture of bombing over the last century, he interweaves his critique with a passionate denunciation of genocide and of the brutality of European colonisation.” The Times
“A History of Bombing is continuously interesting, often fascinating… we need writers like Sven Lindqvist to expose the brutality of warfare and to challenge the need for it”. Financial Times
Lindqvists 2007 book Terra Nullius, A Journey through No One’s Land examines the devastating effects of the British invasion on Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. “Terra Nullius” means “no one’s land” and refers to the British conviction that the land they occupied in Australia belonged to nobody.
In the course of his historical research Lindqvist takes us on a 7.000 miles journey through the Australian landscape, “brilliantly rendered by a master of worldly insight and stylistic precision…a work of urgent necessity and a heart-warming marvel.” Independent.