SVEN Lindqvist’s politically astute reflections on India, China and Afghanistan resonate after 50 years.
The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu
By Sven Lindqvist
Granta Books, 110pp, £12.99
Scandinavian crime fiction may be all the rage at the moment but, as with every publishing fad, it is a peculiarly limiting phenomenon. The popularity of Jo Nesbø or Arnaldur Indriðason is hardly causing a stampede for the Nobel Prize winning novels of Sigrid Undset or Halldór Laxness.
Against this background, we should be especially grateful to independent publishers such as the redoubtable Granta, who have just reissued several works by the Swedish non-fiction writer Sven Lindqvist.
Lindqvist is a writer of rare political engagement, and in order to convey the complexity and urgency of those beliefs, he created a wholly new form of non-fiction. Philosophy, travel, memoir, essay, aphorism and polemic are all interwoven in his works, as they wrestle with perhaps the oldest of political questions: if this is what I believe, then what am I morally obliged to do? His stylistics pre-empt the similar methods used by WG Sebald in The Rings Of Saturn and On The Natural History Of Destruction, but the impasse reached is not one of melancholy pessimism but existentialist anger.
Race, and the legacy of racism, has played a hugely prominent role in Lindqvist’s work, from the archaeological unearthing of Exterminate All The Brutes and Desert Divers (collected together as Saharan Journey) to his broadside against Australian treatment of aborigines, Terra Nullius.
His concerns coincide with those of Sebald in the astonishing and shocking A History Of Bombing. Hopefully Granta might consider making more of his work available, especially The Skull-Measurer’s Mistake and the almost Situationist Advertising Is Lethal. It seems a particularly mordant modern irony that Amazon, if you type in “Sven”, hastens to direct you to the Nazi fantasias of Sven Hassel rather than the incisive critiques of Sven Lindqvist.
There is a curious double pleasure – if that is in any way the right word – in reading The Myth Of Wu Tao-Tzu. It is classic Lindqvist, and displays all his virtues; it is also the first time the book has been available in English. It has never been out of print in Swedish, despite being first published in 1967. The almost 50-year gap makes parts of it especially uncomfortable: not only is Lindqvist analysing the desire for escapism in the age before the internet, he is also examining the political situations in India, China and Afghanistan. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; or as George Bernard Shaw put it in The Revolutionist’s Handbook, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The crux of this slender, discomfiting book is Lindqvist’s changing relationship to the story of the Tang dynasty Chinese artist Wu Tao-Tzu. The most famous legend about him is that he created a mural for the Emperor Xuanzong of uncommon verisimilitude. Amongst the mountains, flora and fauna was a pair of gates: Wu Tao-Tzu clapped his hands and the gates opened. Although the Emperor hesitated, Wu stepped into the painting, and the gates closed behind him. Lindqvist was obsessed by this myth to the extent of learning Chinese calligraphy.
He tracked its variations and permutations in the work of Robert Musil, Marcel Proust and especially in that other great Sinophile, Hermann Hesse. But studying in China, and then travelling in India and Afghanistan, made him confront the ideal of art as idyll: “is there an art more important than the world?” became a pressing question when set aside the almost schizophrenic thinking of Party loyalists and the self-satisfied stagnation of inequality in India.
Lindqvist offers supreme miniatures: a moment of epiphany in a Chinese bath-house when the water connects his healthy body with “these bodies, scarred by war and pox, worn out by hard work, thin from lack of nourishment, with grotesque varicose veins, blackened legs and skin diseases – they are all alive and feel as my body does. When the same water encloses us, it is easier to realise this.” In India, a party panjandrum maintains “the peasant doesn’t mind waiting … you have to learn to differentiate between your problems of conscience and India’s social problems… Let the peasant decide. He will choose freedom, however long it takes before he lunches in the Taj Mahal.” A moment later, in the street, a father offers to sell Lindqvist his pre-pubescent daughter for sex. In India, he is warned against going to Afghanistan.
Once there, he writes “after seeing the fear, the mad fright in Indian eyes, that unnatural abasement both ostentatious and ashamed, but most of all cowed, humiliated and broken – after having been in India, I am glad to see armed peasants”. That this was written before the Soviet invasion, before the Taliban, before Operation Enduring Freedom, is simply chilling.
As a pacifist, Lindqvist is acutely aware of the violence inherent to the system: not simply outright warfare or revolutionary action, but the more clandestine and etiolating violence of inequality; the kind that can’t be neatly summarised with a body count. It was, he says, “possible to grow up with a very good conscience in the Sweden of my youth”: exposure to China, India and Afghanistan disabused him of this naive, Eurocentric optimism. “I realized that my reason functioned within the framework of an insanity which invalidated it”.
Stylistically, Lindqvist moves from a lyrical criticism in the early sections, through hard-hitting reportage, where the points are emphasised by radical juxtaposition, to a series of disjointed, telegraphic sentences, facts, opinions and suggestions. This movement from, if you like, haiku to fragment does not just describe the crisis of conscience and awakening to political crisis, it enacts it on the page. Lindqvist also repeats earlier sections, an effective oratorical device that lets the reader realise how far he has changed in his thinking.
The final section is perhaps the most troubling, since Lindqvist eschews final solutions: indeed, the prospect of final solutions is what worries him most. Some of the facts stick like thorns in the brain; for example, it cost the Americans $100,000 for every Vietnamese insurgent they killed. Other aphorisms are equally, painfully memorable: “what has been done in millions will be repeated in billions”.
The unanswered question of the final section remains even more relevant today. In a world of finite resources, it is impossible to bring every person up to the level of affluence which we in the First World enjoy. How do we deal with this iniquity? “Perhaps”, Lindqvist writes “it is inescapable that the system has to tolerate a certain number of starving and dead.
“We have created a lifestyle which makes injustice permanent and inescapable. Is the conclusion clear? We have to become poor again. Or uphold our privileges with violence. No people, even less a continent, has yet voluntarily chosen poverty”.
Against such a devastating conclusion, the bravest thing in the world is to refuse to join Wu Tao-Tzu in stepping into the picture.
• Sven Lindqvist is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August at 5pm.
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