Mini Book Review: The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Translated by Reg Keeland

Well, first order of business:

I haven’t died since my last post.

In August.

Of last year.

Nor was I raptured in October.  Harold Camping was wrong again.

I have, however, been a victim of a busy schedule and probably some degree of overall burnout.

Anyway, new year – new goals, which include more writing, less me (and possibly a new bike…), and a few other things that are long overdue.

Let’s start with the first.

For Christmas, I found myself the owner of a new Kindle Fire.  I fully accept that the Fire is, out of the box, basically an Amazon Vending Machine.  I’m good with that.  It’s got potential, and I like the form factor better than the iPad.

I’d gotten my mom the DVDs of the Swedish versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s NestI’d watched them last year, and Mom had been reading the books, so we ended up more or less swapping.  (NB – I haven’t seen the new American version of the first film, so any comparisons I make between the books and the films will refer to the Swedish productions.)

What I’d like to do here is capture some of my thoughts on the series without spoiling too many important plot points.  Thus this won’t be a full-on review but rather some loosely connected thoughts and observations.  Bear with me while I try to re-engage the writing cogs.

I suspect that most people are familiar with the basic outline of the books – Swedish investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds himself drawn into an increasingly complex web of conspiracies when he’s asked to help investigate a decades-old mystery and makes the acquaintance of hacker Lisbeth Salander and her aforementioned tattoo.

The first thing to note is that the original Swedish title of the book – Män som hatar kvinno – translates as Men Who Hate Women.  That proves to be the thread that ties the entire series together, and indeed the thread that has defined most of Salander’s life.

(Larsson witnessed a rape when he was young, and never forgave himself for failing to help the victim.  The theme of the trilogy is derived from that event.)

In telling Salander’s story of victimization – initially at the hands of her father and later at the hands of nearly every authority figure she encounters – Larsson also addresses issues of gender inequality in the workplace, in government, and in the perceptions of the population as a whole.

Lisbeth’s brilliant intellect and single-minded thirst for revenge is set against her tiny, doll-like physique.  Her refusal to conform to social norms is used in the second and third books to attack her in the press and in the courtroom.1

Annika, Blomkvist’s sister (later Salander’s lawyer) draws on similarities between her youthful behavior and Lisbeth’s to point out the double standards at work. Erika Berger, Blomkvist’s married lover (and a very shrewd businesswoman) finds herself under attack because of her sexual habits. Female police inspectors in the story are looked down on by their male counterparts.

An interesting thing to notice is that Blomkvist (in the books – they leave out most of this in the movies) is portrayed as quite the player.  During the course of the books, Blomkvist carries on extended affairs with:

  • Erika Berger – his married lover who he has been with off and on for 20 year or so.
  • Cecilia Vanger – a woman who he investigates in connection with a decades-old possible murder.
  • Lisbeth Salander – who seduces him during the investigation of the Vanger case, and with whom he has a fairly lengthy relationship.
  • Harriet Vanger – Cecilia’s long-lost cousin.
  • Monica Figuerola – a special police investigator helping to work out the conspiracy surrounding Salander’s father.

I’m not sure if Blomkvist is written this way in order to serve as an example within the story of a man who can relate to women as equals, or if he’s written as a typical Swedish male and I’m simply trying to view Swedish attitudes about sex through an American lens, or if there’s something else going on.  The end result is that Blomkvist is clearly not a white-hat good guy, but is instead somewhat ethically suspect.  Ordinarily, I tend to like characters with some moral ambiguity, since it makes them more interesting, but I’ve got an issue with this sort of thing.2

There are a few other interesting characters spread across the books.  One of the most interesting, in my opinion, is Alexander Zalachenko.  Zalachenko, a Russian assassin who defects to Sweden in the 1970’s, is Lisbeth’s father.  The Swedish authorities recognize the value of the information Zalachenko can provide, and consequently give him a long leash, turning a blind eye to his violent habits and criminal endeavors.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Zalachenko’s value diminishes, but it’s far too late to rein him in.  His activities form the nucleus of the conspiracies against Salander, but it’s clear that the Swedish authorities who cleaned up after him and failed to control him are at least as culpable as he is.  What makes him interesting is that he’s not just evil for the sake of being evil.  His actions seem consistent within the limits of his own self-interest.  He’s aware enough to manipulate others into doing what he needs to be done, he thinks through the consequences of his actions, and he needs a motivation to do things beyond simply causing problems for a hero to solve.3

Overall, I enjoyed the books.  Having already seen the movies, I knew generally what to expect, but there was enough new and expanded material to keep me interested, especially the more detailed insight into Lisbeth’s character.  The nuggets of Swedish political history that are sprinkled through the books give them some grounding in actual events, which is a nice touch.  Parts can be difficult to read – the assault on Salander in the first book, and some of the graphic descriptions of crimes throughout leave little to the imagination – but such scenes are important to advancing the plot.

As a set of interconnected mysteries, the books work very well, and I highly recommend them on the strength of that alone.  If you happen to find topics of social justice and the treatment of women in different layers of society are more your thing, you’ll find a good helping of those in here, too.

-Jay
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1In some ways reminiscent of the way women like Monica Lewinsky and Casey Anthony have been portrayed in the media. Guilt or innocence often seems secondary to digging up lurid personal details.

2I suppose it’s worth mentioning that all of Blomkvist’s liasons are consensual, and none of his partners have an expectation of long-term monogamy. Nevertheless, his characterization reminds me a bit too much of people who I know who think with their penises.

3Writing convincing villains is hard.  Too often you end up with a 2-dimensional character that exists solely for the purpose of doing bad things.  Like Darth Vader.  He was nothing but a glorified errand boy.  When George Lucas tried to give Vader some depth in the prequel trilogy, all he really succeeded in doing was establishing that Vader was a whiny, arrogant errand boy.  Or consider the typical characterization of the devil, who seems to turn up for no reason other than to function as an agent of evil.  That’s a topic for another day.

New Book Time – Forged by Bart Ehrman

I just received my copy of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. This isn’t going to be a full review – while I hope to have time to write one, it’s more realistic for me to assume that I won’t.  Instead, it’s going to be a brief treatment of what Ehrman is doing when he writes books like this, and why I think his work is relevant.

Ehrman’s popular books are usually very accessible, and I expect Forged to be the same.  In broad terms, it looks at issues of authorship and attribution of various books within the Bible.  Many people assume that the traditional attributions are correct, but for many reasons, most modern scholars don’t believe that to be the case.

I’ve seen criticism directed at Ehrman for overstating the significance of the material he presents.  Such criticism often comes from individuals who end up arguing for inerrancy1 or infallibility.  Typically, though, Ehrman is clear and forthright, and caveats his criticisms appropriately.

Some critics also attempt to paint his work as the fringe research of a disgruntled ex-fundamentalist with an axe to grind, as if he’s attempting to justify his shift from fundamentalism to agnosticism by nit-picking the Bible.  Rather than discrediting Ehrman, this approach simply reveals the ignorance of his critics.  The topics that he writes about, far from being Bart’s wild ideas about why the Bible isn’t God’s word are instead distillations of the last century or so of critical Biblical scholarship.  He’s not making this stuff up.  He’s pulling together a vast amount of information that’s already in the literature and putting it out there for non-specialists to discover.

That’s important.

It’s important because most people who claim to put a lot of value on the Bible have never read it cover to cover.  Or if they have, they tend to read the constituent books in relative isolation from one another.  It’s fairly common during a church service or Bible study group to read from the Bible with the desire to figure out what God might be trying to say2. If you happen to find yourself in a fairly liberal church, you might be encouraged to consider this question in the context of when the particular part of the Bible you’re reading was written.  There are numerous problems with this approach, but one of the biggest is that it masks the fact that the books of the Bible have numerous and often fatal contradictions with one another, and that (far from presenting a unified theology with consistent underlying messages) they present a largely incoherent jumble of orthodoxies that is more reflective of the turmoil and struggle for identity within the early Christian churches than of a transcendent divine message.

Let’s consider Paul, both because Paul is arguably the single most important figure in the New Testament behind Jesus and because Ehrman treats Paul at some length in Forged.

There are 13 books in the New Testament that are traditionally ascribed to Paul.  Of these, seven (Romans, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and 1 Thessalonians) are considered by most scholars to be authentic – they were actually written by Paul.  The other six (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians3) are generally considered to have been written by others – that is to say, they’re forgeries4 written in the name of Paul.  The reasons for this division are straightforward – the seven works that are considered authentic are consistent in their theology and their structure.  The others aren’t.  If we are to consider all 13 to have been written by the same individual, then we have to explain why, in many important respects, Paul can’t seem to agree with himself5. If you read these books in isolation from one another, it’s very easy to miss the fact that they are poles apart on many key issues.  (To be fair, much of the linguistic structure of the Bible gets lost in translation, so people reading the Bible in English can certainly be excused for not being aware of issues in that arena.  However, the theological differences are plain to see for anyone who bothers to read closely.)

There are many reasons why the authors of these works might have written in Paul’s name.  But regardless of how they justified their forgeries at the time, we have to deal with the inconsistencies they introduce now – if in one set of letters, Paul claims that males and females are equal, that marriage and sex are bad, and that Jesus is going to return soon and unannounced, and in others “Paul” claims that church leaders should be married, that women should keep quiet and stay pregnant, and that Jesus will only return after lots of signs and observable events happen, clearly both can’t be correct.  And since both can’t be correct, any statement of faith that tries to claim that the Bible is inerrant is simply wrong before it even gets out of the gate.

And at the heart of it, that’s why Ehrman’s work is important – he’s pointing out why the Bible shouldn’t be unquestioningly assumed to be God’s Little Instruction Manual.  It’s demonstrably not a coherent, clear guide to how the world works, but is rather an often disjoint, contradictory, and internally inconsistent collection of works written to address different needs and situations in times long past.  More importantly, people today are using that collection of works to justify wars, subjugation of women, and demonstrations at the funerals of dead soldiers.  People use that collection to rationalize withholding medical care from their children, to claim that natural disasters are some sort of punishment, and to assert that dinosaur fossils only look ancient because Satan made them look that way6.

I suspect the largest part of Ehrman’s readership consists of people who have already rejected many of the traditional claims about the Bible.  Some small part probably consists of people who have made an a priori decision that anything that he has to say is wrong, and are merely looking for ways to discredit his conclusions.  But some people will read his material with an open mind and, even though his conclusions might make them uncomfortable, will realize that his points are valid.

That can be a difficult step to take.

-Jay

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1And inerrancy often gets phrased in terms of “inerrant in the original monographs”, which is a useless term.  We don’t have the original monographs -the Rylands Papyrus P52, usually dated to around 125 AD, is generally considered the earliest fragment from the New Testament – so the point is moot.  I suspect that such phrasing isn’t much more than a tacit acknowledgement that the Bible as we have it now is anything but inerrant…

2There are several crucial presuppositions to this approach, but perhaps the most obvious one is that God could come up with no better way to communicate with mankind than a collection of documents cobbled together a couple of thousand years ago.

3Hebrews has, in the past, been postulated as one of Paul’s epistles. Modern scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting Pauline authorship, though.

4I’m adopting Ehrman’s use of the word forgery here: the author knowingly claims to be someone else.

5Examples include the role of women, the acceptability of marriage and sex, and the nature and timing of Christ’s second coming.

6During the homily today at the Catholic church I belong to, the priest made a reference to a 4+ billion-year-old Earth.  Such a reference shouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but it did, and he knew it would because he paused as soon as the words left his mouth and looked around to gauge the reaction.