IT MAY come as a surprise to learn that, since 2008, tens of millions of people worldwide have read the books of a Marxist and a committed antifascist. The books are not political titles, but a crime fiction trilogy written by Stieg Larsson. The Millennium trilogy, written before the author’s life was cut short at the age of 50 by a heart attack, includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Next. These books have sold over 21 million copies in forty-one countries, posthumously making Larsson the world’s second-best-selling author in 2008. With so many readers, it seems appropriate to discuss the connection between Larsson’s political legacy and his fiction. Our side should celebrate Larsson not only as a good storyteller, but also as a Marxist and a journalist for the left. His characters and the plots shine a spotlight on the ills and realities of a rigged society.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo starts out slow and convoluted, like a chore the reader must get through, but, once hooked, there is no going back. A summary cannot do justice to the precision, detail and well-thought-out nature of the novels. But rather than giving a comprehensive overview of the plots, this review aims to outline some of the major themes in a way that introduces the Marxist perspective behind these stories, a feature that is either glossed over or absent in many literary reviews and biographical pieces about the author.
The Millenium trilogy centers around two protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, who, in each book respectively, work together to solve a thirty-year-old murder mystery, to uncover a sex-trafficking ring that is aided by the government, and to defend themselves against state repression. Blomkvist, a journalist for a magazine called Millennium, is known for his exposés of powerful people in Sweden. Lisbeth Salander, simultaneously a victim and hero of the stories, is, for many readers, the most engrossing aspect of the books. Information about her life and her difficult past are slowly uncovered over the course of the books. She is an enigmatic and powerful figure from the beginning. She hacks computers like a pro and has a gift for digging up dirt on anyone. But soon into the first book she becomes much more integral to the plot than just a computer hacker.
When he was still alive, Stieg Larsson was primarily known as an expert on Sweden’s far right. Since the 1970s, his life work was devoted to building antiracist struggles and fighting fascism in his home country. His interest in the issue was sparked during his childhood by his grandfather, who helped raise him—and who was imprisoned for being a communist and an antifascist during the Second World War.1
Larsson was an activist and a writer from a young age. He began merging his politics and his writing during the anti-Vietnam War movement. According to his father: “Stieg was young and leaning towards the left. In Sweden at the time, in every town, on every Saturday, young people would be marching, shouting, ‘Out of Vietnam!’ Stieg was one of those young people and he started writing about the Vietnam War.”
Through activism he found the Communist Workers’ League (today called the Socialist Party), a Trotskyist organization in Sweden that belonged to the 4th International. He was an active member for many years. The young activist’s views were further impressed by his experience in Africa, where he brought money and training he had learned in the military to help in the bloody civil war in Eritrea. Larsson’s life was, from this time on, cemented forever with a need to stand up against fascism, religious intolerance, and racism.
When the far right wing in Sweden began making inroads in the early 1980s, Larsson helped launch Stoppa Rasismen (Stop Racism) an organization inspired by the British Anti-Nazi League that organized counter-protests of Nazi groups. Through this work, Larsson began writing for the British anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, reporting on developments in Sweden. A whole decade before the writer began writing fiction, he published his first book called Right Wing Extremists in 1991, the same year that conservative parties made big headway electorally for the first time since 1928. In response, a neo-Nazi newspaper wrote an article that included his full name as well as a photo of the author, and asked readers: “Should he be allowed to continue his work, or should something be done?”2
In 1995, four years after the target was painted on Larsson’s back for any right-wing zealot to see, eight leftists, many of who were colleagues and acquaintances of Larsson’s, were murdered by the right. This was the final impetus for Larsson to found Expo, a Swedish version of Searchlight devoted to exposing neo-Nazis. From that point on, all of Larsson’s political energy went towards using journalism as a tool to fight fascism in Sweden. His passion for opposing the right through journalism led him away from being active in the Communist Worker’s League, though he never abandoned his principles of being against all forms of oppression and for workers’ power.
Today there is a legal battle over Larsson’s legacy. He and his partner Eva Gabrielsson (who is also a revolutionary and an activist), despite sharing their lives, were never married because Swedish law dictates married couples must make their home address public. For obvious reasons, this was not an option for the two.
So Larsson’s estate, including the millions made from the rights to the Millennium series were granted to his father and his brother, who, it seems, he had very little connection to. In an interview with the author’s father, Erland Larsson, he asserts that “Stieg was never a communist,” a statement that is hard to believe, considering that a copy of a will written by his son but never officially witnessed would have left everything to his branch of the Communist Workers’ League.
The battle between his blood relatives and his partner for the rights to the books continues. Gabrielsson currently possesses three-quarters of the fourth book in the series, which she has said she will not release unless she is given full creative control. She has launched a campaign that has generated a lot of public support for the case for her late partner’s estate that will culminate in the release of a memoir called The Year After Stieg.
Larsson’s hatred of the far right comes through strongly in his fiction. His books challenge the view of Sweden as a “socialist paradise” and provide insight into the political reality of the country. While there are many left-wing parties in Sweden, there is also a long history of Nazi sympathies and extreme racism and sexism that come a long with it. The theme of fascists and Nazi sympathizers both in and out of government is sprinkled throughout the books.
The major theme in the books is sexual violence, the thread that runs most centrally throughout the trilogy. The original title of the first book—Men Who Hate Women—seems more appropriate than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the name by which the U.S. audience knows it. Larsson continually draws attention to just how commonplace rape and sexual assault are and how it is both a problem of individual men who hate women and of the whole social system that thrives off of the oppression. From the moment that Lisbeth Salander enters the plot, so too does this major theme.
Stemming from a vaguely-drawn troubled childhood, she is considered an incompetent adult and has had a guardian her entire adult life. When her longtime guardian, friend and supporter has a stroke, she is put in the custody of one Nils Bjurman. Her new guardian is not like the old. Bjurman berates Salander with inappropriate questions about her sex life and hygiene. The abuse from Salander’s new guardian escalates to a horrific rape scene for which she will seek revenge. As the narration explains: “By the time she was eighteen, Salander did not know a single girl who at some point had not been forced to perform some sort of sexual act against her will…. In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey.”
The violence that Lisbeth and other characters experience occurs in situations where turning to police or other authorities is not an option, particularly because those committing the abuse are most often intertwined with the state or are authority figures themselves (like Salander’s so-called guardian). The world is stacked against women, and the only opportunity Salander and other female characters have is to fight like hell against their attackers.
Critics of the novels have said that the sexual violence is gratuitous. As one reviewer wrote: “I finished Larsson’s novel with the uncomfortable sense it used a good mystery as an excuse to dwell on sadism and perversity—an aspect only exacerbated on screen.”3
However, when the context of the dangerous reality that women face in Sweden is taken into account, the violence takes on a much more powerful message than simple “perversion.” Sweden is a country broadly thought to be progressive on women’s issues, where women have long paid maternity leaves, socialized childcare and even a Feminist party (“Feminist Initiative” is the name of the party in English) that gets a sizable percentage of the vote. And yet statistics of sexual assault remain incredibly high, even after feminists fought and won stricter judicial penalties for prosecuted offenders.
In a subtle way, Larsson points out just how ingrained the oppression of women is to the fabric of society and that justice cannot come from relying on the institutions of the system but only from oppressed people fighting back, as Salander does. Beyond this, Larsson’s plots also challenge traditional gender roles. It is Salander and not the male protagonist Mikael Blomkvist who ultimately saves the day in the books. And while Blomkvist helps Salander in important ways, he is helpless when it comes to defending himself or others physically.
An active middle-aged man who takes on social villains through his journalism, Mikael Blomkvist is a rather clear literary reflection of his creator. Larsson spent many years of his life exposing fascism in his home country just as Blomkvist does through the Millennium trilogy. Both were committed to publishing truths that the mainstream media and the government actively try to hide. Blomkvist is not a political activist, but through a sober look at facts finds himself on the side of the oppressed and against individual capitalists and government corruption that collaborates with criminals at the expense of people’s lives.
The details of Stieg Larsson’s life go hand in hand with his novels. Many mainstream articles about the mystery series mention his political life as a side note, but make only superficial connections between the content of the stories and his outlook on the world. Larsson’s friends say that the writer would be up all day working on Expo and would then stay up all night writing these novels. The books are not so much an escape as a reflection, in a different context and with a different outcome, of the reality that Larsson lived as a man taking on powerful and villainous characters in society—much in the same way as his protagonists do in his novels.
The backdrop of Larsson’s novels is a Sweden where the state and the criminal elements of society are combined, where government-run institutions carry out the dirty work of government criminals, where women face endless gradations of sexism and where the mainstream media are run by corporate bigwigs. But it is also a world where those who push back against the powers that be can expose these ills and win retribution—a view that comes out through the series in an understated yet powerful way. Like his journalism, Larsson’s novels put forth the basic viewpoint that the world we live in is rotten from the inside out but that, when we fight back, we can effect change.
- Barry Forshaw, The Man Who Left Too Soon: the Biography of Stieg Larsson (London, John Blake, 2010), 19.
- Forshaw, 19
- “Stieg Larsson, the Man behind Lisbeth Salander,” March 31, 2011, www.stieglarsson.com/biography-work.
- Forshaw, 19.
- Mary Pols, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ Review: Swedish Suspense,” Time, March 19, 2010, www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1973433,00.html.