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the steel spring

17 may 2014

Per Wahlöö's Steel Spring was first translated into English by Joan Tate in 1970, but languished out of print for many years, by contrast to the ever-popular Martin Beck novels that he wrote with Maj Sjöwall. A new translation by Sarah Death appeared a few years ago, and I'm just now becoming aware of that translation and of the solo novels by Wahlöö at all, for that matter.

The Steel Spring is an early entry in the growing genre of crime novels that are set in imagined nations. Our hero is Jensen, a veteran police inspector in need of a risky liver transplant. He shuts up his office, turns over his desk to a replacement, flies abroad, and wakes up several weeks later in a hospital bed to find that his entire country has been sealed off from the outside world, in the grip of epidemic, panic, and chaos.

The shreds of what government has escaped the catastrophe meet Jensen at a foreign airport and commission him to figure out WTH is going on back home. But his remit reminds one less of a Krimi than of post-apocalyptic thriller series like Y: The Last Man or The Walking Dead. Jensen becomes our representative, the lonely Everyman whose job is less to bring order to an existing world than to learn the contours of something new and deadly.

Often too, The Steel Spring resembles less either crime or SF than it does more "literary" analogues like the surreal bureaucratic fiction of Saramago or Kadare, fiction about parallel universes where only the worst laws are unsuspended (and which, as in Saramago, sometimes feature bizarre plagues, as well).

About three-quarters of The Steel Spring consists of a deepening mystery in a provocatively built alternative world. Then, like many a novel of its general variety, it starts explaining too much. Wahlöö wraps everything up in 200 pages, which is long enough to enlighten Jensen on what's been going on while he was unconscious, but too short to satisfy our desire for adventures in his weird world. By contrast to the realistic if scathing portrait of Sweden that Wahlöö drew in his work with Sjöwall, the fantasy elements of The Steel Spring allow him to extrapolate his critique of the soulless public/private-venture welfare state in striking ways, though there's more sketching than fully realized landscape. Jensen's country has done away with faction and desire, making everyone depressed as hell; it's poisoned the liquor supply, making them even more depressed; finally, in the run-up to an election, it determines on using psychoactive drugs to mellow its population still further, with the predictable unpredicted consequences.

One of the most memorable, if most off-the-wall, details of this fantastic society is its approach to its food supply. The nation is fed from

snack bars where the private food industry syndicates that had won contracts from the Ministry of Public Health [served] up their scientifically composed but far from tempting set meals. … A few years before, the operation had been rationalized so that all the outlets in the city served only a single daily dish. … A typical dish might consist of three slices of meat loaf, two baked onions, five mushy boiled potatoes, a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some thick, flour-based sauce, a third of a litre of homogenised milk, three slices of bread or crispbread, a portion of vitamin-enriched margarine, a little tub of soft cheese, coffee in a plastic cup, and a cake. … The whole lot was served on hygienically packed plastic trays, covered in plastic film. The profit motive had dictated that almost all the private companies in the the business had gradually been sucked up by the big food industry conglomerates. (89-90)
Immaterial to the plot, that unappetizing paragraph is also the most sustained episode of description in the entire novel.

Wahlöö, Per. The Steel Spring. [Stålsprånget, 1968] Originally translated by Joan Tate, 1970. New translation by Sarah Death. London: Vintage, 2011.