by Lexander Magazine Staff Writers
Stieg Larsson was murdered. Utter that sentence in a room full of half-inebriated publishers, producers, and journalists, and you’re likely to have a thousand eyes staring at you in disbelief and uncertainty, as if you had just stood up and declared that the end of the world was imminent. Officially, he died of a heart attack that struck after walking up seven flights of stairs. He was fifty years old. That this happened, and the way it happened, was taken for granted and accepted at face value, without much of an investigation, nor even much in the way of conspiracy theories, is rather curious. His publisher in Sweden, and most of his friends and associates, likewise did not question the fact that this man, who was not considered to have been in terrible physical condition nor suffering from any known heart problems, died of a heart attack at fifty while walking up seven flights of stairs. Granted, his grandfather had died of a heart attack at fifty, which perhaps may suggest something more than just chance. Or perhaps not.
The unique case of Stieg Larrson is fascinating for a number of reasons. While he was alive, he did not publish any fiction in book or novel form, and the crime novels that he wrote for which he has become so famous, he wrote for his own edification, or rather, as with so many artists, he wrote them to exorcise the torments of the past that had haunted him to the very end. For Larrson, this torment revolved around the brutal gang-rape by three boys of a young girl that he personally knew that he had witnessed at the age of fifteen. He stood by and did not nothing to stop this rape. Overcome with guilt, he approached the girl some days afterward and begged her to forgive him for his silence and inaction; she refused. What happened to this girl, who was named Lisbeth, and the fact that he had done nothing to help her, had so traumatized Larrson that it haunted him for the rest of his life.
Unable to forgive himself, he evolved into a fervent feminist and anti-racist activist, founding the Expo Foundation in 1995 as a vehicle to combat right-wing extremism and racist elements in Swedish society. He remained the editor-in-chief of the foundation’s magazine until his death in 2004. As such, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his Millennium series of novels reflect aspects of the work he did in real life as well as the society in which he lived, but more so, as a way for him to come to terms with that terrible incident of his youth for which no apology could ever suffice.
Due to his willingness to go to lengths very few others dared in order to expose not only overt far-right and racist activity in Sweden, but to also expose such latent activity in the mainstream society itself, he quickly came under intense attack and criticism, and given the constant barrage of death threats that he and his life partner, Eva Gabrielsson, received, they lived in constant fear for their lives. Larrson’s basic paradigm of Sweden was that racism and xenophobia permeated every aspect of the society, to such an extent that many deliberately shut their eyes to this reality and refused to even acknowledge it.
And therein lies the most unique factor behind Larrson’s Millennium series, that behind the over-the-top pulp facade, they are crime novels with a social conscience. Living in a world so filled to the brim with mindless stories, pointless entertainments, and all sorts of other diversions that serve to distract from the issues and problems of day-to-day reality, Larrson created a pulp thriller with broad appeal that isn’t afraid to show just how dark, ugly, and cruel the world can be, but at the same time optimistic enough to know that it doesn’t have to be this way and there is a way out of the abyss.
It would, however, be a mistake to label Larrson’s novels as being “feminist” or as belonging to any kind of “-ism.” To do so would ignore the fact that Larrson did not advertently write the Millennium series for an audience, but rather as a way for him to exorcise the demons of the past. The evocative 2009 Swedish adaptation did an excellent job of mirroring this reality, showing us the world as seen through the eyes of Stieg Larrson, with brilliant, understated performances by Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. The characterization of Rapace, in particular, gave us a portrait of an uncompromising individualist with a sincere and relentless hunger for justice and equilibrium.
The 2011 Hollywood remake was mostly a pointless adaptation, inferior to the Swedish original and lacking the subtle depth of Rapace and Nyqvist’s performances, though serving as an important starring vehicle for American actress Rooney Mara, whose stylish, confident characterization of Lisbeth Salander marks her as one of the most credible and capable talents of her generation, a tiny, remarkable minority given the dismal state of Hollywood in the last few years. That said, the marketing campaign of the Hollywood version rather senselessly turned the character of Salander into a sex object, which was to be expected. Even with an adaptation of a novel originally titled Men Who Hate Women, there is no end to the objectification.
Given the sheer and enduring popularity of Larrson’s novels and the inherent reason for their being, it is not surprising that to certain groups and individuals, he was considered to be dangerous. After all, he was a marked man. We may never know whether his heart attack was deliberately caused by external factors, and that may very well be a mystery for another novel and the inevitable Hollywood adaptation.
The real mystery of Stieg Larrson, is how his perfidious inaction in youth directly led to his growth and coming to terms with the past by helping transform the culture of an entire nation in combating the scourge of xenophobia and promoting the acceptance of those who are different from the majority. In Sweden, he was one of the few who stood up and proclaimed that it’s alright to be an outsider.
There will, of course, continue to be men who hate women, and those who want to annihilate everyone different from themselves, but their time is coming fast. As it is, the world will eventually mature and move on, and as history opens up a new chapter, there might very well come that equilibrium that today, still seems a distant dream.