A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 103

Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Saturday, June 27

“ ‘Justifiable homicide,’ ” said Allwright. “How do you say that in Swedish?”
“It’s untranslatable,” said Martin Beck.
“There is no such concept,” Kollberg said.
“You’re wrong about that,” Allwright said, and laughed. “They’ve got it in the States, believe you me. Just let a policeman shoot somebody, and it’s always ‘justifiable homicide.’ Legitimate murder, or whatever we’d call it in Swedish. It happens every day.”

—Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Polismordaren  (1974)

So some Europeans have been on to us, with our peculiar institutions, for 40-odd years. But who are the Swedes, with their increasingly popular and very bloody “Scandi noir” fiction, to preach?

In cinematic depictions, police activity in Sweden, Denmark, or Norway is often marked by squads of black uniformed, Kevlar-padded, automatic-weaponed cops closing in on suspected evildoers. In such fiction, the contrast between the heavily armed Scandi cops and often unarmed Brits like Inspector Lewis or Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is very striking. Has Sweden become more violent, and more heavily policed, since the 1970s?

In an article on Sweden from two years back, Politico reported that “Shootings in the country have become so common that they don’t make top headlines anymore, unless they are spectacular or lead to fatalities.” Norwegians disparage their trigger-happy neighbor, commonly using the phrase “Swedish conditions” to describe crime and social unrest. Crime is closely linked to Sweden’s failure to integrate the immigrants it has allowed, more per capita than any other EU country. Immigrants now make up a quarter of the Swedish population.

Denmark, in contrast, has been noticeably unwelcoming to immigrants. It is one of six Schengen-area countries that tightened its borders, contrary to EU protocol, and has deported lots of asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants. In 2018, its government even went so far as to begin moving undesired immigrants to a remote uninhabited island once used for contagious animals.

That country’s admirable social contract seems to rest upon the fact of a less diverse population. What American wouldn’t envy the Danes’ benefits as summarized in The New York Times: “free health care, free education from kindergarten through college, subsidized high-quality preschool, a very strong social safety net and very low levels of poverty, homelessness, crime and inequality”? But must such goodies come at the cost of ethnic diversity?

Denmark has also been much more effective in fighting the pandemic than Sweden. A combination of lots of testing and government subsidies to keep employees on payrolls has meant a COVID-19 death rate that’s less than one-third of Sweden’s. The pandemic continues in Sweden, which never closed its schools or restaurants and has had five times as many deaths as its Scandi neighbors combined. Recently, Denmark, Norway, and Finland all closed their borders to Swedes, as did the Netherlands and Cyprus. Greece requires visiting Swedes to produce a health certificate.

So what’s my point in all this? Sweden, unlike its neighbors, seems to be evolving in the direction of the U.S.: more crime accompanied by fewer restrictions on the population and on the economy—all at the cost of placing people at greater risk.

The authors of the Martin Beck detective novels, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, were already unhappy with the direction of Sweden in the 1960s and ‘70s. They spoke of their Social Democratic government’s “anti-humanitarian cynicism” partially disguised by its proclaimed goal of A More Compassionate Society. Today, they would likely be even more disenchanted.

Dinner: leftover black beans and rice, a lettuce salad with cucumber, radish, and avocado.

Entertainment: One episode of Netflix’ German series Dark–which we deemed too weird and supernaturally oriented. Then an episode of the Margaret Atwood adaptation Alias Grace, which is terrific. We paid for but were unable to load a streaming video from the Film Forum, Jean-Pierre Melville’s When You Read This Letter. Poor streaming reception has led us to cancel our subscription to Acorn. Both Mhz and Britbox have almost no new shows, so they may be next.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 53

A gray catbird: Pavarotti of the backyard.

Thursday, April 30

Last night brought torrential rain, some of the hardest I can remember. Plus the cathedral ceilings in this bedroom and in the front room amplify the sound. Rural life remains a bit unnerving: All night long there was a non-melodic, metronomic cry from one bird—coming every two or three seconds. He seems to have the night shift, while a gray catbird talks constantly during the day. We hear no sirens—although a couple of times while we have been here, ambulances have paid visits to houses on this block. One could only cringe and wonder what was going on…a heart attack or a wife-beating? A case of COVID-19?

Right now, I can hear the catbird—tweet, tweet, tWeet, tweet…..Other than the muffling whoosh of the furnace coming on, there are no other sounds to compete with him.

Suffolk County, which includes the East End, is close to reaching the limits that would allow a “reopening,” according to County Executive Steve Bellone. Since April 20, hospitalizations have been declining, and The East Hampton Star says, the county is approaching the limit of 70% capacity in both regular hospital and intensive care unit beds. (I guess that means 30% of beds are unoccupied.) These are the markers set by New York State. Testing must also be readily accessible—and that’s still just a goal, Bellone admitted.

Our Westchester-based friend fears that she has got it. She has to make an appointment for a test, then with luck, go to a drive-through facility to get tested. At last report, her blood oxygen level was OK but her pulse was elevated. Little wonder.

The BBC reports that, strangely enough, many U.S. medical workers are idle at home and drawing no salaries during this frantic period. That’s largely because elective surgeries have been canceled—sometimes since potential patients are afraid to go into hospitals.

“American healthcare companies are looking to cut costs as they struggle to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis,” the report asserts. “As some parts of the US are talking of desperate shortages in nursing staff, elsewhere in the country many nurses are being told to stay at home without pay.”

Here, a momentary break in the rain may be followed by more pelting rainfall and thunderstorms tonight. Emily announces that online, many people are invoking the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day to describe their weirdly repetitive and predictable day-after-day lives; she thinks it’s more like The Twilight Zone, “because it seems so surreal and dystopian.”

Nordic noir writer Maj Sjowall, a co-author of the classic Martin Beck series of Stockholm-based policiers, has died after a long illness, aged 84. The series remains one of my all-time favorites, and I read the books again and again, each time finding something new, surprising, weirdly humorous, and upsetting.

“They went beyond crime fiction, breaking new ground by carrying out a forensic examination of the failings of Swedish society,” says The Guardian, as they tackled such themes as  pedophilia, serial killings, the sex industry, and suicide.

I would say the duo seemed to regard the sex crime—depicted in such books as Roseanna—as the defining misdeed of our time. Quite in contrast to the socially benevolent sleuths of British classics, the Maj Sjowall-Per Wahloo police squad is marked by both cleverness and stupidity, brutality and revulsion at their own social role. It’s not unusual for them to solve crimes quite by accident.

Dinner: leftover pasta and meatballs, green salad.

Entertainment: episodes five and six of Occupied, the highly topical and expensively produced political thriller that ran for three seasons in Norway. Themes: climate change, corporate power, the political clash between traditionalists and environmentalists, and ethical compromises excused as accommodations to necessity.