Aniara - Harry Martinson
Harry Martinson.
Harry Martinson (1904-1978)

When Swedish poet and writer Harry Martinson was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1974 "for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos", the decision was controversial, to say the least. Any Nobel prize to a Swedish recipient is of course automatically suspect. If you pick 700 persons in the world at random, you can only expect to find one Swedish-speaking person in the group. And there are more than 6,000 languages in the world.

There are counterarguments. Great talent can be found even in a small population. Consider ancient Greece. And England's population was just 4-5 million in the age of Shakespeare and Newton. What really matters seems to be the level of cultural activity in a country rather than gross numbers. You have to wonder how many unsung geniuses around the world are being lost or overlooked even today, due to a lack of education, challenges, and opportunities. The Swedish Academy strives to strike a balance that reflects the quantity and quality of literary achievements in different regions of the world, and within each region. An impossible task, to be sure. How could a small group of part-time readers ever hope to cover all of world literature? And besides, something is always lost in translation. But still.

There was an additional ground for criticism, however. Both Martinson and his co-recipient Eyvind Johnson were members of the Academy. Martinson, who was a very sensitive person, was deeply offended at insinuations that he had been awarded the prize for reasons other than merit. Subsequent attacks by Swedish left-wing authors accused him of being out of touch with a new generation of political activists less prone to "sweet resignation". He sank into a deep depression and finally committed suicide in 1978.

My mother enjoyed literature and tried to instill the same interest in me. This was not too difficult when it came to the Swedish classics from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but contemporary Swedish writers did not excite me. (They still don't.) But she found a way to overcome my resistance. In 1953, Martinson published a collection of poetry: Cikada. It included a series of poems about a spaceship lost on its way to Mars, The Song of Doris and Mima. Although it wasn't exactly the kind of science fiction I was used to reading, it was interesting enough, with its theme and its inventive, playful language.

In 1956, Martinson published a complete volume of poems, Aniara, which was an expanded version of the Doris and Mima cycle. I received it as a present shortly after it appeared. By now, I was a little older and more mature and could appreciate it better.

Aniara opera.
Aniara was turned into an opera in 1959.

The story line is simple enough. A future war is raging on the Earth, and people are fleeing to Mars. One of the space ships, Aniara, carries 8,000 emigrants. The ship encounters an asteroid and has to make an evasive manoeuvre. This puts it on a hyperbolic trajectory out of the solar system, with no hope of return. The book describes the attempts of the emigrants to cope with their fate: hedonism, religion, science, etc., interspersed with reminiscences from the war and earlier, happy, times. A central role is played by the ship's computer, the Mima, which is not just intellectually superior to any human - it also harbors deep emotions and dies from grief when it witnesses the Earth's destruction. - After 20 years, the ship has traveled just 16 lighthours (and is still on the outskirts of the solar system). There are no children. The last passenger dies after some 25 years. The ship is destined to travel for another 15,000 years before reaching the vicinity of another star. Martinson memorably compares the spaceship to "a bubble in the glass of God's spirit", referring to the glacial movement of bubbles in glass, understood as a liquid with very high viscosity.

I do not intend to describe the book in detail. It is very familiar to every educated Swede, and to non-Swedes it is out of reach due to the language barrier. True, it has been translated into many languages, but in my opinion no translation can do justice to Martinson's wonderfully creative use of the Swedish language. And even when a semantic translation is possible, how do you convey the nuances of sound and rythm? "Ett ljusår är en grav" with its dark, sorrowful vowels comes out as "A lightyear is a grave" in English, which means the same thing but simply does not feel right. Or take the alliterations when the narrator reminisces about the Finnish province of Karelia (lost to the Soviet Union in WWII):

Skönast ibland sköna glimtar syns dock skymten av Karelen,
som ett vattenglim bland träden, som ett ljusnat sommarvatten
i den juniljusa tiden då en kväll knappt hinner skymmas
förrn den träflöjtsklara göken ropar åt den ljuva Aino.

which literally translates roughly as:

Most beautiful among beautiful glimpses is seen the glimmer of Karelia,
as a waterglint among the trees, as a lightened summer water,
in the June-light time when an evening hardly has time to get dark
before the wooden-flute-clear cuckoo shouts to sweet Aino.

Aniara.Here, the difficulty is compounded by the lack of experience of most foreigners of the Nordic summer, and of all the emotions and nostalgia that the short summer nights evoke in Nordic people.

Some details that I particularly enjoyed are the description of the superhuman computer Mima (this was in 1953, remember!): "They know that the intellectual and selective transmission fidelity of the mima surpasses that of man, if man were Mima, by three-thousand eighty times." - "The inventor was himself completely dumbstruck the day he found that one half of the Mima he'd invented lay beyond analysis. That the Mima had invented half herself." - And this, which I used as a motto in a linear algebra test: "And Isagel, who finds the question reasonable, accepts his set of formulae and rearranges it for the third thoughtbank of the gopta desk". - Sometimes Martinson inserts poetry in everyday situations. A female clerk says: "Write your name on this line, where the light from my blondeness shines down." And its counterpoint fifty pages later, when the female mathematician Isagel says: "Follow with the numbers this graph, where the darkness from my grief its shadow casts." ("...där mörkret från min sorg sin skugga ger.")

Martinson was widely acclaimed in the 1930s and 1940s, a "golden boy" in the new generation of authors, thanks to his novels and poetry, enriched with his gift for metaphor, which captured the Swedish infatuation with Nature. - I remember his touching and poetic running commentary to a nature documentary on TV sometime in the 1960s. He had a gift for improvisation similar to that of a good jazz musician.

Harry Martinson.
A late picture of Martinson

He had a difficult childhood and youth. His father died when he was six, and his mother deserted him the following year. (This may have contributed to his need for approval and acknowledgement, and explain his deep depression later in life, culminating in suicide, when he faced rejection from "cultural workers" and reduced popularity among the general public, due to the zeitgeist.) He was raised in foster homes. At age sixteen he became a sailor, roaming the seas for the next seven years. Ashore, he was something of a drifter, doing part-time work and augmenting his meagre income with earnings from selling poems. - He participated as a volunteer in the Finnish winter war 1939-40.

The main message of Aniara, "my child" as Martinson called it, is the need to take care of Mother Earth. Aniara is intended as a warning to mankind, urging us to accept responsibility and guilt for our collective sins. It was inspired by the events of WW II and by news of the hydrogen bomb in 1953. "The cruelty of space does not surpass that of man." He calls man "the king of ashes".

His spiritual testament is this: "The eternal mystery of the starry sky and the wonders of celestial mechanics are law but not gospel. Mercy grows on the foundations of life."

Further reading

In English:

  1. "Aniara: On a Space Epic and its Author" by Aadu Ott and Lars Broman, International Planetarium Society, with many excerpts in English.
  2. Harry Martinson: Catching the Dewdrop, Reflecting the Cosmos by Ulf Larsson. A biography written in 2004.

In Swedish:

  1. "Aniara, 50 år senare", by Sara Danius, abridged version printed in Dagens Nyheter of a lecture given in The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities in 2004
  2. "Harry Martinson, ur minnesteckning av herr Espmark", by Kjell Espmark, The Swedish Academy
  3. Harry Martinson-sällskapet, home page

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    Last edited or checked June 6, 2013. Fixed broken links May 30, 2017.  

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