Posted by: gdevi | January 13, 2010

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

Book Review: Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Trans. Reg Keeland, Random House: Vintage Crime, 2009, pp. 590, pbk. $14.95.

In the mid 1980s a corruption scandal of gargantuan proportions rocked Indian politics. No less than the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (assassinated later on unrelated matters) and a cohort of ministers, lobbyists, business men, king-makers so on and so forth were implicated in the financial fraud of the century: the Swedish weapons manufacturer Bofors corporation allegedly paid 400 million rupees in kickbacks to the Prime Minister and his cronies for an Indian defense contract.  Reading the newspapers in those days was like reading a John Le Carre novel; Swiss bankers, Italian businessmen, Swedish contractors, Indian politicians, off-shore accounts, PO box accounts, dummy corporations–in the delicious words of Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo of Larsson’s novel, “a fraud so extensive it was no longer criminal; it was business.” I was reminded of the “Bofors Scandal” (as it has gone down in Indian political history) when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; in some ways, it is a truism to state Balzac’s great dictum yet again that behind every great fortune there is a crime, but the more you live in this world, that seems to be the case; the Vangar family in Larsson’s novel is by no means unique in its ethical depravities, sociopathic exploitation, and general fraud.  (I am thinking of the great financial empires in India as I write this.) I thought of the Bofors Scandal for another reason as well; well, that was the first time we heard something scandalous about Sweden. I mean, to us, in India, Sweden stood for ABBA, Bjorn Borg, Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman and Max von Sydow. (Well, there is much spiritual corruption in Bergman’s movies; he specialized in showing us a particular Scandinavian brand of existential malaise.) My brother played with a model Saab car.  Everyone knew that Volvo was made of pure iron and if you collided with a Volvo, you will die on impact and everyone in the Volvo would be safe. (That was the car to get, you see.) All the young engineers dreamed of working for Ericsson.  And then there was my darling Axel Munthe; I had read The Story of San Michele, I don’t know how many times. When I was a kid, I wanted to write like Axel Munthe. But that was it; Sweden was not like India, mired in corruption. At least that is what we thought until the Bofors corporation became headline news; arms dealing, no less. Larsson’s Sweden is mired in corruption. I was also reminded of the Bofors Scandal for a third reason; Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson’s hero is the type of financial journalist who I would pick to tell the real story of the Bofors Scandal–what were these Italians and Swedes doing in India anyway? Blomkvist’s patience alone would make him the perfect person to study these corporate criminals.

A patient book is also a long book and though the main narrative of  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo covers more or less a year, the story itself plumbs a family saga over a forty year period and  is close to 600 pages. Larsson has pulled off a challenging feat here; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an old-style family chronicle in the manner of the Russians or the continental novelists of the nineteenth century, but it is also an irresistible page-turner, thriller and a mystery–syncopating the narrative pacing of these two vastly different genre requirements alone is no small achievement. The novel begins with the very public humiliation of Mikael Blomkvist whose newspaper report on the criminal activities of the wealthy and powerful industrialist Wennerstrom backfires on him due to suspect sources; Blomkvist is completely discredited in public and he is more or less finished as a financial journalist though his chief editor Erika Berger (also his occasional lover) does not want him to quit his job at Millennium, the publishing company they own together.  Blomkvist does anyway; he has to serve a three-month sentence as punishment for the libel charges against him. The newly jobless and disreputed Blomkvist however gets a mysterious invitation from Henrik Vanger, the aging scion of another millionaire Swedish industrial firm to visit him at his home in an island called Hedeby far removed from Stockholm. My friend and teacher Michael Beard and I used to try and figure out the nature of page-turners and here is something I discovered about page-turners as a genre: history must be packaged as conversation. The first meeting between Henrik and Mikael has astounding depth of information, but it is presented as a dinner conversation between a clever, old man, alternating between discourse, reportage and self-revelation with a smart, suspicious, and curious younger man.  When my daughter interrupted me for  a glass of water or to comb her hair or to find her pencil case I was very careful to mark where I left off and then go back and reread very carefully the exchanges between Henrik and Mikael. Henrik, because of his age and his position can afford to be ruthless about his family and this is what he tells Mikael:

The Vanger companies are still among the few family-held firms in the country. Thirty family members are minority share holders. This has always been the strength of the corporation, but also our greatest weakness. . . . Mikael, you can ask questions later, but I want you to take me at my word when I say that I detest most of the members of my family. They are for the most part thieves, misers, bullies and incompetents. I ran the company for thirty-five years–almost all the time in the midst of relentless bickering. They were my worst enemies, far worse than competing companies or the government. (86)

Henrik gives Mikael a job with a handsome pay (2.4 million kronor) — write the history or biography of the Vangar family. Nothing unusual there. A financial journalist asked to write the biography of a wealthy industrialist family. Why do you want me to write the biography of a group of people that you detest, Mikael asks Henrik. My motive is simple, Henrik says: revenge. Henrik wants Mikael to use the family biography as a pretext to find out what happened to his niece, the sixteen year old Harriet Vangar who suddenly disappeared one day never to be seen from or heard from again. Henrik is convinced that if anyone can crack this forty year old cold case it is Mikael; he has the persistence, patience and  eye for detail that Henrik believes will turn up something, anything new about Harriet’s disappearance, and possible murder.  Henrik, who is childless, was particularly close to Harriet and was hoping that she would inherit the family business. And then on a day confused with a trailer accident Harriet disappeared and Henrik fervently believes was killed and by a family member too because it happened inside the family island. Mikael will use the family history project to revisit the Vangar clan and piece together what happened on the day of Harriet’s disappearance and preferably identify the killer in the family. In return, Henrik will give Mikael Wennerstrom on a platter to avenge Wennerstrom’s assault on Blomkvist’s journalistic reputation.  Larsson hedges this murder sub-plot, which eventually becomes the main plot with all kinds of artful catch 22s; the girl disappears from an island owned by the Vangars–everyone who lives in that island is a Vangar, except the pastor and a handyman–it is a closed-room mystery–so only a Vangar family member could have murdered the sixteen-year old or played a hand in her disappearance.

Larsson’s real strength in this novel is to show us the (intuitive) connections between white collar corporate crimes and particular sociopathic exploitations, particularly that of women.  (Larsson who died in 2004 of a massive heart attack and who wrote the Millenium series of novels purely for pleasure was considered by many to be Sweden’s leading expert on extreme right wing and conservative hate-crime groups; his journalistic work had sought to expose Sweden’s racist underbelly. Who knew? The Vangar family for instance has a disturbing Nazi link. ) Long before this gender motif becomes the lead motif (an earlier title of the novel was Men Who Hate Women), Larsson prepares us for this dimension by using some startling statistics from Sweden about violent crimes against women as epigraphs to chapters.  The novel’s critique of violence against women is solidly carried by Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, a twenty-something punk hacker social outcast and part time investigator for a security firm who becomes Blomkvist’s unlikely ally in solving Harriet’s murder. Salander is the termination point for a series of violent crimes against women which starts in the early 60s with Harriet. Many, many terrible things happen in the plot, most of it violent and sadistic but none of it is gratuitous: Larsson’s point is that media does not hold the wealthy and the powerful accountable for their ethical breaches and it is well-taken. The last quarter of the novel has a lot of abracadabra in it; hacking, worms, viruses, funkafied money transfers, vanishing accounts and the like and perhaps some of this is a bit too pat, but as Pedro Almodovar said in Todo sobre mi madre (and I paraphrase) you are more authentic the closer you are to what you dreamed of being. And the world Larsson dreams for us is a fair and just one. Good book; thanks Nic.

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