PAPERBACK; 188 P. ALBERT BONNIERS FÖRLAG, 2004/1956 SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY
The great Swedish writer Harry Martinson published his masterpiece, Aniara, during the height of the Cold War – right after the Soviet Union announced that it had exploded the hydrogen bomb. Aniara is the story of a luxurious space ship, loaded with 8,000 evacuees, fleeing an Earth made uninhabitable by Man’s technological arrogance. A malfunction knocks the craft off course, taking these would-be Mars colonists on an irreversible journey into deep space. Aniara is a book of prophecy, a panoramic view of humanity’s possible fate. It has been translated into seven languages and adapted into a popular avant-garde opera.
Once upon a time, in a far far corner of a nice Irish pub I asked my reader friend to recommend me a good science fiction book (he’s an expert, you see). The response was immediate – Aniara by Harry Martinson –, so much so that at first I thought he making a joke. However, the name stuck in my mind and about a month later I checked the book out from the library. The only copy available in my local library was in Swedish, but I decided that it would have to do. I mean, how hard can it be to read about space travel in Swedish? (Answer: Hard, but so bloody worth it.)
Aniara begins with the launch of one of the gigantic ships that are transporting people from the no longer inhabitable Earth to Mars to begin a new life there. Unfortunately the evacuation flight gets pushed off track by a collision with an asteroid, and due to a technical error it can’t return back to its original course: the ship is lost in space, floating around with no hope of ever reaching its target. However, the technology of the ship allows its 8,000 passengers to continue to live luxuriously for several decades within the spacecraft. With no immediate danger, the people try to return to their normal lives by building their own society within the spaceship. Aniara is an exploration of the psychological side of life in a closed community: the ship’s inhabitants form their own microcosm of class divisions, religion and morality.
The epic of Aniara consist of 103 songs describing mostly the life and thoughts of an engineer running a machine called Mima that relieves the homesickness of the passengers by showing old images of the Earth. As Earth is the only main connection between the huge mass of people in the spacecraft, the machine is thought have mystic powers and its rooms in the ship come to serve as a church of some sort. Aniara show the human need to control fate as well as the horrors born from conflicts between different groups. As the flight of the ship progresses, the reader learns more about the reasons behind the destruction of Earth as well as the horrifying secrets behind the evacuation plan. Aniara is a tragedy and the heartbreakingly beautiful songs give the story a true feeling of a tale passed on from generation to generation.
I fell in love with Aniara from page one. Although the language made me jump through some hoops with the dictionary, the end result was fantastic and mind-blowing. The book’s themes of humanity, societies and international politics tick all the boxes for me and combined with the stunning poetry, it was clear that the book would become one of my favourite reads. Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974 “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos” – although there were some controversy surrounding the process – and in my opinion he has definitely earned it. Unfortunately copies of the English translation are currently almost nonexistent (so I’m told). Some e-copies can, however, be found online, and then there’s always the library. I highly recommend this if you enjoy beautiful and tragic writing about societal issues and human psyche.
Protesting we were innocent, we sought
to reason without learned reference
and in the language most of them were taught
propound the barest modicum of sense.
But this same language, meant to clear up all,
grew murky for us too, a rigmarole
of words avoiding words and playing blind
amid the clarity of cosmic soul.
(trans. Stephen Klass & Leif Sjöberg)