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Karin Boye: Kallocain (Kallocain)

Anyone reading this book will be immediately reminded of 1984. As this book was published eight years before 1984 and did not appear in English till eighteen years after the publication of 1984, it is unlikely that Boye or Orwell stole from one another. Rather, they may both have had a common influence – Zamyatin‘s We. For what it’s worth, I preferred this book to 1984. Others may disagree.

The story is set in a 1984-like country called Worldstate. Every individual is subordinate to the state. There are no privileges. Everyone is entitled to the same living space, regardless of rank – one room for singles, two rooms for married couples. Everyone is expected to give up his/her free time to”voluntary” work such as military or police work. Though there are hints of an enemy from outside, we learn little of this enemy till later into the book, though the propaganda machine has clearly suggested that the enemy may well have evolved from a different and inferior breed of ape. The hero of the book is Leo Kall – the names are vaguely European but certainly not Swedish. Gall is a chemist in Chemical City No 4. He is married to Linda and they have three children. (Marriage is fairly fluid, with divorce being common and the children soon taken from the parents to be put in a military camp.)

At the start of the book, Kall has invented a truth drug – soon to be named Kallocain – which seems to have few side effects. (Bear in mind that this was written before sodium pentathol and other truth drugs were well known.) He makes it known to his bosses and he is given a temporary boss – Rissen – who may be or may have been his wife’s lover. They test out the drugs by telling test subjects to tell their spouses that they are spying against the government. Unfortunately, most of the spouses report their spouses’ betrayal but a few do not and these are tested – successfully – with Kallocain and confess. Inevitably, they all reveal interesting motivations for their having concealed the truth. The first subject, for example, is so surprised that her husband has confided in her – something he has never done before – that she cannot betray him.

Of course, in such a society, the drug becomes wildly successful. With the aid of police chief Karrek and police minister Tuareg (who is later caught in a thought crime), crimes are soon uncovered. Kall and Rissen do uncover what seems to be a sect of people who, while not openly in revolt against the government, get together and almost seem to drop out. There seems to be some implication that Rissen is involved. Of course, it does start to unravel. Kall tries the drug on Linda to see if she is having an affair with Rissen. She is not but she does want to kill him. He himself gets involved in various thought crimes, despite himself, and ends up sympathising with the sect. Indeed, he seems to be about to join them when he is captured by agents of the neighbouring country and, at the end, is working for them. We learn that they are very similar to Worldstate and called the Universal State. In short, they are all as bad as one another.

Like Orwell, Boye is clearly cynical about the unfettered power of the state and how the individual is repressed in the society. While not a strong theme, the role of women – seen in this novel as weak and primarily only useful for child-bearing – is also brought out. But it is her discussion of truth – through the mouths of Kall, Karrek and Rissen – that is particularly interesting. What is it and where is it? She gives a much more intelligent and well thought-out response than Orwell.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Bonniers
First English translation 1966 by University of Wisconsin Press
Translated by Gustaf Lannestock (University of Wisconsin Press); David McDuff (Penguin)