All of us are taking part of a mutual history

Interview with Alexander Ahndoril, Swedish novelist

By Nasrin Pourhamrang


(Iran-Rasht) - Alexander Ahndoril is a renowned Swedish playwright and novelist. His best-selling novel, Regissören (Stockholm: Bonnier, 2006), about the film maker Ingmar Bergman, was published in English translation as The Director in 2008. Ahndoril was longlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2009.

"The Director" which is Ahndoril's eighth novel is the most discussed and written-about novel in Sweden for 15 years.

He was born in Stockholm 1967 and has been a student of film, religion and philosophy at the University of Stockholm. His debut as novelist was in 1989 (Den äkta kvinnan). After his second novel (Om hjärtat är vidrigt) he began to work full time as a writer.

Sweden's daily newspaper "Svenska Dagbladet" has described his novel "The Director" as "Exuberant and deeply moving, irreverent and full of love."

I've conducted an interview with Ahndoril to discuss about his viewpoints regarding literature , his outstanding work "The Director" and the prospect of Swedish literature.

What follows is the text of my interview with Alexander Ahndoril, Swedish playwright and novelist.

Nasrin Pourhamrang: You believe that imagination and reality constitute one single unit; that is they are in a same body with a single voice. Would you please explain more about this notion for our readers?

Alexander Ahndoril: All of us are taking part of a mutual history – it has a huge influence on us, but each of us has at the same time an influence on the history. And this mutual history is of course fictional since it’s only existing in our fantasy - and the past is therefore constantly recreated.

NP: Would you please talk about your most popular novel "The Director" for our Persian-speaking readers? Unfortunately, none of your works have been translated into Persian and Iranian readers are not familiar with them. What made you think about writing "The Director"?

AA: The main character of the novel is the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the date is 1961; the setting is the shooting of Winter Light. This is a very active and creative time for Bergman, right in the middle of his career, not yet canonized, but already famous.

  Bergman has just been awarded his first Oscar for The Virgin Spring, but he can’t really enjoy it, because all he can think about is making his new film Winter Light, a film about how dull and different his life would have been, had he followed his father’s wishes and become a priest. His father was a priest. As Bergman writes the manuscript he tries to draw his father into the process in an effort to close the distance between them, while more and more desperately longing for his approval.

  Bergman wants to prove to his father that he would have made a terrible priest. His need to contend his father’s disappointment is a very strong emotion in him.

  This film becomes very, very important to Bergman, but soon he begins to notice that nobody else understands his reasons for making Winter Light. Everyone around him thinks everything about the film is dull and boring, and stubbornly Bergman’s father refuses even to read the manuscript, he’s not interested, he says.

NP:  What roles do reality and imagination play in your novel? How much is the proportion of each constituent in the novel? Is the protagonist of your novel similar to Ingmar Bergman?

AA: If I might try to explain my way of working, how I used the biographical material, the result of my extensive research, it took almost twenty years.

  When my oldest daughter, Saga, was around six years old she used to do a very special kind of drawing. First she did an ordinary drawing, usually of a princess, and a horse and a tree, but then she turned the paper over and on the reverse, from what she could see through the paper she made a sort of copy of the first drawing.

  ‘This is the princess’ dream’, she said. 

  This new drawing, on the reverse side of the paper, had sort of strange, dark, glowing colours. And when I held the paper up to a lamp I could see that the two versions resembled each other in some parts and not in other parts, a few details had been added and a few had disappeared.

When I had done my research … I had the life and work of Bergman on an enormous piece of paper, and then I turned this paper over and drew my version on the reverse, from what I could see through the paper.

  The truth is not the drawing on the front side, nor the drawing on the reverse, the truth is maybe what you see when you hold the paper up to a lamp.

NP: Your novel "The Director" takes place in the beginning of 1960s. Would you please explain for us the social situation of Sweden in this era and that why you selected this period of time for composing your novel?

AA: I was born in Stockholm 1967 … maybe the end of the fifties and the sixties was when Sweden was at its best, almost considered as a paradise around the World. We had a strong economy, strong unions, open democracy, free schools, free universities, free healthcare, long vacations and Sweden was the first country that banned corporal punishment of children.

NP: What did Ingmar Bergman, in your view, raises miscellaneous ideas regarding the novel "The Director"? He once acclaimed the novel and its writer and six months later stated that it was a big insult and humiliation. What was the reason in your view?

AA: Maybe he got cold feet and wanted to take control over fictional Ingmar Bergman again.

  Several times I have been asked what I would have done if Bergman had asked me not to publish my novel. Well he didn’t, that has been my answer. Probably I would have published my novel anyway, but maybe I would have listened if he wanted to change something, but he didn’t, he didn’t want me to change a single word.

  We talked for more than two hours when he had read it and he was – as he put it – just full of admiration.  

NP:  Do you like to write a new novel on the basis of the personality and life of a living person?

AA: 2009 I published a novel called The Diplomat. This is the story of a Swedish diplomat's career, of his position in a political centre of power as chief of UN:s weapons inspectors in Iraq. He is already an older man and preparing to retire, when he is asked to disarm Iraq. One last time he becomes involved with the powerful people of the world. He conducts negotiations with George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Amir al-Saadi, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Kofi Annan. They all tell him that they want a peaceful solution.

  So, it seems that the diplomat's mission is a simple one. But underneath the calm surface the water is cold and the undercurrents are strong... The events preceding the war in Iraq are quite well known, but this is the first time we are presented with the kind of resistance, difficulties and contradictory situations the Swedish diplomat might have been up against.

  In The Diplomat I make up this person's background, childhood and grown-up life with a family, which all together influence the choices the diplomat makes, when embarking on the mission of disarming Iraq in the spring of 2003. This means that I don't use his childhood as an explanation for his actions, but instead I let his actions as an old man, create a completely new childhood."

The Diplomat is a story of how the desire for truth can enter into dangerous alliances with silence. The Swedish diplomat never states that there are no weapons of massdestruction in Iraq. He carries out lots and lots of inspections, and examines so called evidence from different intelligent services, but finds nothing. Still, the Swedish diplomat does not announce that Iraq is disarmed, because he cannot be absolutely sure, because he wants to tell the truth

NP: Would you please kindly speak about your other novels for the Iranian readers of this interview? They like to hear about your other novels from you. Where and when did you write these novels? Do you write all of your novels with the inspiration of the Swedish environment?

AA: I have written nine novels and more than twenty plays for the theatre, but since the summer of 2009 I’m more famous as a crime novelist under another name. Together with my wife Alexandra I have published two crime novels. We’re using the pseudonym Lars Kepler and it has become a great success. The first book of the series, The Hypnotist, is translated into 36 languishes.

NP: Are you, at the time being, working on writing a new novel or do you have plans for writing a new one?

 AA: Right now Lars Kepler is taking all my time – it’s so exciting and creative to write together with my wife.

NP: Why did you select novel-writing as a professional occupation for yourself? When did you first realize that you are interested in writing novels?

 AA: I read Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea … I was eighteen, loved it, but thought to myself: How hard can it be to write a thin novel like that? So I sat down and wrote … it was maybe a bit harder than I’d imagined, but two years later my first novel was published. Well … I was not awarded the Nobel Prize for that one, but it was a start and that changed my life.

  Actually I think writing novels is the best art form existing – the best way too communicate with other persons on a both deep and emotional level.

NP: Why are the Swedish readers predominantly interested in detective novels?

AA: We have a tradition of writing and reading crime novels, but we read of course poetry and postmodern literature too. Reading good crime novels are really entertaining and it has become a global phenomena and not longer just a Swedish thing.

NP: What's your evaluation of the contemporary literature of Sweden? What's the position of the Swedish literature compared with the rest of European countries?

 AA: One huge strength is the gender equality in Sweden – another is the will to criticize our own society.

NP:  Do you like your novels to be translated into Persian as well? Are you familiar with Persian culture and literature?

AA: Well that would of course be fantastic! I have only taken part of some of the classic Persian poetry, but I really want to learn more.