I just hope that Leif GW Persson’s extraordinary novels based around the still-unsolved assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme don’t founder on their titles in this country. Another Time, Another Life, the title of the second in the trilogy, just published here, is not quite so elusive as the first, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, but neither has made extolling the novels’ greatness in conversations anything but a fumble-fraught trial. Still I persist, because the first two volumes (a translated edition of the third volume is slated to appear later this year) have no peer among the host of Swedish crime novels that continue to sweep America. Though the books are connected and are peopled by many of the same characters, they can be read out of order, although the surprises they offer will be different.
Another Time, Another Life begins on April 24, 1975, with an actual event, the takeover of the West German Embassy in Stockholm by members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in an attempt to force the release of their leaders being held for trial in Germany. Police arrive at the scene and lay siege to the building, whereupon the occupiers shoot and kill first one and then another of the German members of the embassy staff. They promise to shoot more, one an hour, until their demands are met. The standoff is brought to a fiery end — here and in history — when one of the gang members accidentally ignites the explosives they’ve brought with them. The remaining hostages escape without further harm, two of their captors are killed, and the rest, though injured, are quickly shipped back to Germany. Thank God.
What had happened was definitely not a cheerful story, but in the general misery the government could be happy that public opinion was united behind them. In addition, for once the goodwill was shared by the populace and the media. The man on the street was, to put it simply, furious. The whole thing was very un-Swedish, and at the same time it was typical for the Germans to foist their problems on their peaceful neighbors — something the Germans unfortunately had been in the habit of doing for far too long. In brief, you got the terrorism you deserved, and besides everyone who had been abroad in winter knew that the Germans always push ahead in the lift lines at the most popular ski resorts, despite the fact that these were in Austria and Switzerland.
Persson excels in evoking a mood with this sort of sardonic riff, in the present case capturing a very Swedish form of self-righteousness and hand-washing and elsewhere of bureaucratic self-aggrandizement and official temporizing. In the same vein, he records throughout the disparaging inner commentary of various members of the police and secret service as outwardly they mouth routine waffle. The salient fact about the Sweden of Persson’s novels — darkly comic at times, sinister at others — is that a great deal goes on below the surface. Cover-ups abound, individually and nationally: past involvements are tucked away — or tick away — starting with roles played in the Second World War and the Cold War and moving on to the violent radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the case of the embassy affair, it is clear that the German invaders must have had Swedish accomplices, people who had housed and fed them at the very least. The secret police are handed a few leads, but, really, this incident in all its “un-Swedishness” and unexpectedness is not the sort of investigation they favor, “in contrast to activities you initiated and guided yourself in the form of surveillance, infiltration, and the organized gathering of information through telephone monitoring, other types of eavesdropping and radio surveillance.” The increasing autonomy and self-defeating proactiveness of the security forces in Sweden is a theme that runs through these novels.
Now we zoom ahead to November 1989 and the discovery of a murdered man in a Stockholm apartment building. The month also marks the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of its power in the Eastern Bloc — and, more to the point where this story is concerned, to the opening of East Germany’s secret-police files. There are many, Swedes among them, who know that the infamous records kept by the Stasi will reveal some of their own more regrettable activities. Could it be that the murder victim is among them? Not in the opinion of the detective inspector put in charge of the case, a loathsome creature called Bäckström, a glutton and a sot whose overwhelming foulness was such a treat in the first volume. It is clear to him, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the murder is the result of a homosexual imbroglio. He is assisted in his incompetence by another loser of our acquaintance, Wiijnbladh (first names are in short supply in these pages), whose chief goals in life are avoiding work and, more ambitiously, killing his wife. This worthless duo is the despair of a couple of other old friends from the first volume, Bo Jarnebring and Lars Johansson, whose lives we have followed back and forth in time.
Once this murder case has been thoroughly bungled, we move on to the year 2000, at which juncture a number of chickens come home to roost (and we have the great pleasure of learning what life has handed the many characters we have come to know). It is at this point, too, that Persson’s true genius becomes evident, and that is his cunning in conflating his plot with history’s, for seating fictional events in a force field created by powerful economic interests and global Realpolitik. Need I say that a CIA operative is involved? But his manipulations are only one strand in a splendidly convoluted denouement that, were it not fiction, would simply have to be true.