The Unit

“I live for the capital; that’s a fact, isn’t it? And the best I can do with this fact is to like the situation. To believe it’s meaningful. Otherwise I can’t believe it’s meaningful to die for.” Thus blusters Dorrit Weger, the narrator of Ninni Holmqvist’s savagely dystopian debut novel. At the age of 50, childless and her family “scattered to the winds like a dandelion clock,” Dorrit has been shuttled from her cluttered farmhouse on the coast of Sweden to a pristine research facility, which operates, as one friend puts it, like “a free-range pig farm.” There, in a sprawling complex — topped by a transparent atrium, open to the passing clouds and the drumbeat of the rain — human beings are tested, dissected and eventually killed, their organs donated to needy residents in the “community” outside the unit gates.

Holmqvist wrote The Unit in 2006 — it appears in English belatedly, in a sturdy translation by Marlaine Delargy — and although the book can be read as a study in futurism, à la William Gibson, or Philip K. Dick, it is probably best understood as political allegory. 2006 was a monumental year in Swedish history: that fall, the long-reigning Social Democrats were swept out of power, and replaced by a right-leaning coalition led by Fredrik Reinfeldt. As one Swedish political scientist told the New York Times at the time, some felt that Stockholm had been “drifting,” with the administration battered by soaring unemployment rates and the first pangs of the global recession. But few imagined how seismic the election would prove; how positively shattering its implications.

Over the past decade, Sweden, once a bastion of “moral supremacy,” has tacked violently to the right, jettisoning along the way many of the vestiges of the socialist state. Pensions, healthcare and public transportation are all now privatized, and in May, the government began selling off state-owned pharmacies. Asked this year about the prospect of bailing out the Saab Automotive plant in Trollhattan, an industrial city on the Göta älv, the Swedish enterprise minister demurred. “The Swedish state is not prepared to own car factories,” she announced. And no longer, she might have added, is the Swedish state prepared to own hospitals, schools, or banks.

Americans, raised in the tumult of the free market system, are more or less reconciled to its strictures. We may occasionally rail against Wall Street’s greed, but as a country, we trust in commoditization — in “getting ahead,” and in the self-made man. Not so for the Swedes, many of whom have greeted the arrival of the New Sweden with shock, and not a little nostalgia. In The Unit, which is staged in the near-future, Holmqvist positions Dorrit as politically agnostic: “Every time the topic came up, in the media or with other people” Dorrit remembers, early on in the book, “I heaved a bored sigh.”

Still, after a few months in the facility, when Dorrit finds herself bent over the limp body of a dying friend — his liver recently removed, his heart still limping along — she is apoplectic. “I wish I lived at the time when people still believed in the heart,” she sobs. “When people still believed that the heart was the central organ, containing all the memories, emotions, capabilities, defects and other qualities that make us into specific individuals. I longed to go back to an age of ignorance, before the heart lost its status and was reduced to just one of a number of vital but replaceable organs.”

“Replaceable” — this horrific idea skitters through the pages of The Unit, like the needling fragment of a nightmare. Dorrit and her compatriots at the facility are viewed by the government as throwaways; because they are childless, and because no one depends on them, they have been pressed into service for the state. Most are creative types, artists and writers and designers who came to believe it was “a taboo to be, or even dream of being, emotionally or financially dependent on anyone, or to harbor even the tiniest secret desire to live in a symbiotic relationship with another person.” For this independence, they have been rewarded, upon reaching late middle age — 50 for women, 60 for men — with a sentence of death. And not just execution, but a slow, excruciating passing, where the body is poked and prodded and sliced apart over a multi-year period before it is finally consigned, without much fanfare, to the morgue.

“I suppose I used to believe my life belonged to me,” Dorrit tells her psychologist at the Unit. “Something that was entirely at my disposal, something no one else had any claim on, or the right to have an opinion on. But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t own my life at all. It’s other people who own it.” Urged on by the shrink, she continues: “Life is ? a capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy.” She is only a “steward, taking care of my vital organs.” This, Dorrit understands, constitutes her own biggest failure: successful human beings live for money and power. But she has lived only for herself. Now her body, so useless in life, will become in death a contribution to the progress of the state.

Holmqvist is remarkably deft at conveying the stages of self-mourning each patient experiences — the initial shock, the passivity, the final burst of anger and disbelief — despite a prose style that often verges on the desultory. (Dorrit: “Then I spread butter on a cracker, sliced some Port Salut and placed it on top. Ate — still standing, but leaning against the counter facing the room. Chewed. The hard cracker crunching between my teeth? Then I remembered I had some tomatoes,” etc., etc.) She doesn’t waste more than a few lines on how the Unit came into existence — something about a “debate,” a “referendum” — and once Dorrit is ensconced within the facility, the outside world flickers away. As in Kafka and Nabokov, this prison is made all the more frightening because it has no real history of its own; it is enough that it exists, and that there are people inside — sweating, crying, dying.

A series of surprising developments do eventually provide Dorrit a modicum of hope, but they arrive late enough in the text that it would be a disservice to the reader to list them here. It is enough, I think, to say that Holmqvist, who puts no stock in modern politics, has plenty of faith in humanity. Under the white-washed eaves of the Unit, patients are encouraged to interact freely with one another: to swim in the pool; to lounge in a replicate of Monet’s garden; to attend dances and gallery openings. It’s only a Petri dish culture, of course, but it does much to dull the ache. Dorrit reconnects with a childhood friend, Elsa, and together, they whittle away the hours with remembrances. “This sort of talk,” Dorrit thinks, “was calming, soothing. It was as if we were wrapped in a kind of cotton wool, insulating us from everything around us.” Even in the thickest of darkness, Holmqvist hints, we are connected to one another by ephemeral threads.

It’s no coincidence that the other great theme of The Unit is the power of witnessing — of the petit immortality of the written word. Dorrit was a writer before coming to the facility, and ostensibly a pretty successful one; so too was Johannes, the man who eventually becomes her lover. Even as the rest of the Unit caves in around them, they sustain themselves through the act of documentation. They sleep together, and eat together, and edit one another — Dorrit finishes a novel, among other writings, and Johannes a collection of stories. Holmqvist clearly views these acts as sacred; they are paramount even to life itself — a corrective to the rigidly capitalist state. Even The Unit itself is revealed, in its later pages, to be a kind of record of the facility for the people living outside its walls. As Johannes tells Dorrit, “Man is a collector, a fanatic when it comes to documentation. The only thing of real value is what we produce.”