Scandinavian crime fiction stormed the world when the Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, unleashed the anorexic and tattooed revenge-hacker, Lisbeth Salandar, and the chain-smoking left-leaning journalist Blomqvist. Jo Nesbo, Larsson’s Norwegian partner in crime fiction, describes similarly bizarre murders that, to a South African, could seem comical at times in relation to the regulated tolerance of the liberal, feminist social democracies of Scandinavia.
But the warning was there, crime fiction when done well, can be both sharply and prescient of the gathering social storms that cause the smooth surface waters of a society to eddy into violence. Larsson’s books, like many of the Scandinavian wave of crime writers, carry in them the spectre of the far right, something dark, furtive and violent prowling on the edges of these novels and on the lunatic fringes of society.
That was until last Friday when a truck packed with a fertiliser bomb detonated in central Oslo. The gun-jump of the western media was startling. The attack was immediately, and without reference to any facts, assumed to have been perpetrated by Muslim jihadists, that familiar and comprehensible enemy without. This was to be Norway’s 9/11. But then the reports started coming in of a man shooting scores of beautiful children attending an island summer camp. The axis of comfort and assumption convulsed when the realisation spread that the meticulously ordered killer was a muscular, blonde Norwegian man.
Difference, challenge, defiance, discussion – all the things that result from the melting-pot cultures that result from immigration, travel, migrant labour, globalisation, the unassailable facts of the world we all inhabit, threaten the narcissistic individual when they change (for better and for worse) previously homogenous societies. The narcissism of Breivik, the perpetrator, is chilling. Hidden away in his manifesto– a weird jumble of medieval Christianity, machismo, violence, and xenophobia – is a fetish with his appearance, his bodybuilding, his visits to the solarium in the period prior to the attacks, his sense of superiority to others. But anything that is different, that is ‘other’, is perceived as a threat because it disturbs a rigid and fanatically held sense of self. This psychotic and fragile vanity, his explosive narcissism, seems to parallel his politics of racial purity and exclusion.
Breivik’s meticulous planning appears so sane, if one measures sanity by the ability to plan ahead and foresee consequences. His crime is one that both feeds off and is fed by the media and social networking, weapons that extremists and murderous lunatics of all persuasions have used to their own purposes. However, Breivik’s final moment of glory was scuppered. The judge ordered that Breivik’s first hearing happened behind closed doors, saying that he would not allow him the opportunity to use the court as a global platform to spread his anti-Islamic message. Denying him the chance of making a supposedly heroic statement from the dock was the only consolation that could be offered to the bereft survivors of the massacre.
I watched the TV footage of Breivik arriving in a blood-red sweater for his court appearance. He looked so ordinary. It brought to mind Hannah Arendt observing Eichmann’s trial for war crimes in Jerusalem in the 1950s. She wrote then about the banality of evil. She wrote of how impossible it was to correlate the insignificant man in the dock with unimaginable suffering that he, as a Nazi, as a human being, had caused with such zeal and efficiency.
Breivik’s crime is at once so stupendous and so banal, that it too defies correlation. How does one fashion the chaos and pain into a narrative that restores individuality to the dead and makes sense of this rip in our collective soul? A collective death makes for collective suffering but assuages none of the pain. Every death is uniquely felt; it is endured alone by each bereaved mother, father, sibling, lover, friend.
How does one write about this? A violent narcissist – like the serial killers who have taken centre stage of so much recent crime fiction – has at the heart of him an aggressive absence rather than a soul. This absence of humanity at the heart of a human being fascinates us, but it is humanity that has been the subject of the novel since its inception two hundred years ago. So if I were to write about these young, wasted people, each one would be a bildungsroman rather than a crime novel. Each novel would be named for each one of the dead, 70, or 80 or 90, however many they count in the end. I would unfurl their truncated lives, charting each one’s stolen course of small happinesses, small tragedies, broken and mended hearts, gardens, travels, the children that will never be born. I would make sure that none of them ever met Anders Breivik.
That is all the consolation I can offer. But I know and you know, that nothing will help.