I'm a little groggy this morning, because I stayed up until 1:30AM in order to finish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Is it fine literature? Well, let's see if people are still reading it 100 years from now with the same avidity. Will I re-read it a decade hence and have a wholly different experience? I'll get back to you in 2021. Lisbeth Salander is undeniably a captivating character, and I can see why readers (including me) will reach for the next book in the trilogy: We want more of her.
As I think about it, I have nothing against a book with high entertainment value. I give Larsson all due credit for keeping me riveted way past my bed-time. What I also want from a book is to learn something new. It doesn't need to be a life-altering revelation. It could simply be increased knowledge of wombats, a new view of Argentina, or a glimpse at some facet of myself which had been hidden from my awareness. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (both the novel and its title character) revealed to me my own ludicrous stereotypes of Sweden.
I've lived and traveled in developing countries long enough to have heard the same story everywhere I've been: "If I could only get to [fill in name of developed country here], I could get enough money, and then everything would be fine." I heard a radio story recently in which refugees who had recently landed in the US were still struggling to accept that America -- the paradise of which they'd dreamed and to which they had finally come -- has homeless people. Even after a social worker took them to see soup kitchens and homeless shelters, they were incredulous. As I read this book, I realised that I, who grew up in the US, harboured at some level the same rosy delusions about Sweden. Everyone is blond and athletic. They all drive Saabs and Volvos, and who hasn't admired their cosy homes in the Ikea catalogues? Life is orderly, smoked fish is plentiful, and the educational system and dentistry are flawless. The suicide thing? It's probably only the people who spend the whole winter on that Ikea sofa watching Ingmar Bergman films.
Some of the statistics that Larsson printed at the beginning of each section woke me up like slaps. For example:
- Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.
- Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.
Yes, there are corrupt corporate tycoons and sexual predators slithering around, even in [Sw]eden. Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004. Many say his life was otherwise imperiled by the ultra-right-wing Swedish Nazi groups he'd been writing about for years. Of course at some level I always knew that the grass is not always greener in Sweden, but that knowledge got buried under the avalanche of travel postcards in my brain. Stieg Larsson cleared the haze for a while and made me say to myself what I say to all those who tell me their wish to live somewhere other than where they are: No place is perfect.
And now I'm off to Portugal -- a country about which I've formed few images or preconceptions -- to read a work by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a writer about whom I know nothing. Don't you love books? It's like boarding a flight to Lisbon with nothing but a passport in my pocket.