Åke and I were sitting in the two canvas chairs outside the Larsson house, and it was time to unpack a big box of Swedish history I was beginning to possibly misinterpret. I’d just returned to Runmarö after being away for a couple of weeks. All the guests (over 40) who’d descended on the island for his father Bengt’s 90th birthday party had dispersed and now it was just Bengt, Åke, myself, and the two cats, Sassa and Gisa.
The sun was beginning to set, and I’d brought out some sardine spagetti and chilled rosé wine, before I asked my old friend to explain once and for all what exactly went down in Sweden before the war, in terms of “race biology,“ forced sterilizations, and the troubled, muted business of “ingenjörs konst,“ (the art of social engineering.)
This was all part of a deeper and more personal conversation we kept starting but not finishing about how Åke himself felt, at age 50 something, that there was a distinct part of him that had in some way been socially engineered by the Social Democrats and was possibly not (entirely) organically him. Åke.
On the night he first spoke of it I saw something on his face that I’d never seen before. It was as though he had understood the outer edges of some kind of betrayal, and was genuinely baffled by it. Nothing in Åke’s character expects or for that matter registers the sinister. Speaking of the vast engineering experiment known as Vällingby, (a housing complex) where he grew up, he described a place that had been masterminded to anticipate and answer every human “need,“ prevent any danger, and answer any question before the mind asked it. Tilting his head slightly he said: “There were air stewardesses standing in the central square directing us, telling us which was to go, to get to the library, or the store, or the movie theater.“
“Yes, that’s what they looked like. Short skirts. Hot dog hats. Uniforms…“
[Some would say worse things could happen in the housing projects of one’s youth, but that would be missing the point. And I didn’t.]
That night as Åke lay sleeping on the futon under the mosquito net I sat on the edge of the bed and sent empathy to his heart area. All our lives, I had been in pain, but never he. I always “take things seriously.” Maybe “too“ seriously. Maybe not. I sat there for a long time. I wanted him to tell me more about the stewardesses. Maybe he would dream about them. Who were they? What colors were their uniforms? What did they want? Did they pretend to be his mother, or mothers? Now I was getting freaked out too.
We’ve been very close friends since I was 18 and he was about 23. The setting for our friendship has been this island, Runmarö–one of the main islands in Stockholm’s archipelago–where the patriarch of the Larsson family, Bengt, wisely bought land, in 1965. The Larssons had to blow up a small mountain to clear land for the house, which is, hilariously, still under construction. It does have walls and a roof. We all have the best intentions to pick up a hammer and help out a little, each summer. I sometimes wonder if any of us have ever been fully happy anywhere else except here, on the island.
Åke is a professor of music and history among other things, and the dean of a college. I am forever asking him questions and he is endlessly patient in his detailed and balanced explanations of things.
I was tired. We both were. We’d been to the gigantic supermarket in Guvtavsberg and bought food for this impending last round of the summer, which would include my birthday, and crayfish, and unbeknownst to us, the first ever trans-tribal fight that would change everything between us all.
I sat listening to Åke explain all about Ras Biologiska Institutet in Uppsala, the top Nazi who spent 8 years there, the ways that Europe had been seeking answers to its futurist dilemmas through the burgeoning new science of racial biology, and how and where exactly that science had lost its innocence.
“Biologi lånar sig till vad som helst,“ Åke said. [Biology lends itself to almost anything.“]
“You’re not kidding,“ I muttered, scraping at the dirt with my toe.
It was then I saw the mouse, lying there, half a foot from our feet. He or she was fairly small, perfectly intact.
Åke kept talking, and I–half listening–stared at the mouse.
Finally I pointed it out.
“That’s Sassa’s,“ he said with a faint wince, referring to one of the family’s two female cats. “She’s been leaving them all over the place.“
Now the conversation escalated into the 1940’s, 50’s, the construction of “Folk Hemmet,“ and what it was all about–the Utopian dream of the Social Democrats, to build a perfect country that would have everything going for it except the quality, perhaps of being a country, and a people. [Identity, free will, destiny.]
I’d been probing him about how he felt he himself was affected by it, shaped by it. He and I could always talk though everything. But this was the first time I ever knew him to admit anything had affected him, or better to say, afflicted.
Meanwhile, the mouse was fast asleep, not concerned at all about all these uniquely Swedish anxieties. You just sleep little thing, I thought. Don’t worry about all this. It’s nothing to you now.
Åke spoke, so lucidly, laying everything out, as I felt the familiar pain rise up. I wanted the mouse to wake up and go back to his family. Why wouldn’t he move?
The next day we were getting ready to put up scaffolding and paint the roof. Yes, we actually painted the roof that day. The mouse was still there, still sleeping.
“I’ll paint the roof on one condition,“ I told Åke. “That you remove the mouse.“
He bent down and picked him up with a cloth and took him down the hill. I all but asked Åke to bring him back after he’d done that, because immediately I missed him. The thing about Åke is that if I had asked him to go bring back the mouse, he would not understand me, but I think he would have done it. Or if he didn’t, he would want me first to agree that it was not rational, did not make sense, just like the people who mucked around with his soul when he was a child would want him to conclude. But without a doubt, he would talk to me about it.
Åke is kind and incredibly balanced. He wants the greatest good, for the most, at all times, for the best reasons. But ’they’ didn’t build him, and must not get credit. One day I will tell him that.
Tell him who he is.