Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
Smile of a Midsummer Night
by Lars Gustafsson and Agneta Blomqvist
Haus Publishing, 2015
In this illuminating book the authors, who happen to be husband and wife, present a personal view of Sweden, a country most of us know very little about. They do this by way of writing several short essays – there are 29 altogether – focusing on different aspects of Sweden and Swedish life.
We begin in the South, visiting first the city of Lund (where we learn that the name means ‘grove’ and that it was most likely once a place of pagan worship; there’s a cathedral there now – and an astronomical clock) before travelling North, with excursions to East and West, ending up in the town of Gallivare, in a region that’s home to the Sami people: reindeer country. Certainly it is signiificant that wildlife feature strongly in the book – reindeer, wolves, various different kinds of fish, and of course the elk – along with the habitats, the fjords, forests, and wetlands, that they depend upon. An indication that the Swedes are an ecologically minded people and care about the natural environment.
The weather, the seasons of the year, and the festivities associated with them are another focus of the book: the title essay is all about how Swedes celebrate Midsummer’s Eve, which is by eating new potatoes and herring and dancing around a maypole with a garland in their hair (in truth, I don’t believe all Swedish people do all these things). While there is, as well, an essay about the feast of St. Lucia around about Christmas time. Elsewhere, one essay praises the virtues of Princess Cake; all Germanic cultures, it seems, have their very own version of Kaffee und Kuchen. Of all the places mentioned, the ancient city of Jonkoping is the one I’d most like to visit; it sounds absolutely strange and magical.
What makes the book rather more than a cheery travelogue (though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this) is the authors’ voice, which is lyrical, personal (a curious thing to say since there are two authors, nonetheless it is true) and rich with insight. Here’s a remark which I found especially striking:
Swedish culture is not least a water culture, a creation by people who have lived close to water and have understood its spirit.
One can detect muted but distinct faultlines – tones of anxiety, notes of concern – in some essays. An anxiety about how urbanisation and industrial progress will effect the fjords; about the future of the Sami people; and about the monoculture, an alteration for the worse, of Sweden’s forests. A concern regarding the centralism of the Swedish state and Sweden’s sometimes problematic relation to the Baltic states, not to mention Russia itself. In their most provocative essay, ‘The Vanished East of Sweden’, the authors write of:
…a perverse boycott of any discussion of the Baltic countries, the reasons for which are extremely complex, and influenced not just by the imported propaganda machinery of the Soviet bloc, but also by a subtle feeling of guilt.
This quotation refers to the denial by many that the Baltic countries (whose populations include a sizable number of ethnic Swedes) were ever under the control of the Soviet Union. Though I expect I’m missing some of the authors’ allusions here.
Smile of a Midsummer Night is an informative and thought-provoking, hence ideal introduction to a complex country that has a rich history and geography. Undoubtedly, it will pique your curiosity and motivate you to learn more
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at email@example.com