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Lars Gustafsson: Sorgemusik för frimurare (Funeral Music for Freemasons)

The title, of course, refers to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Ann-Marie Nöhme, one of the three main characters in this novel, is an opera singer whose favorite role is Pamina. The three grew up together in Sweden in the 1950s but, somehow, their initial promise never materialised, each for different reasons. Ann-Marie, for example, gets caught up in artistic bureaucracy and politics and does not have the talent and/or the push to rise above that. Hans, known to everyone as Hasse (the joke is never explained but presumably refers to the Hans of the Hans and Lotte Hasse couple who made TV movies about life underwater), was a promising research scientist but has now become a self-satisfied academic at Harvard, with a wife he calls the witch and two remote children. Finally, and most important, is the Rimbaudesque Jan Bohman who was a promising poet and littérateur and ends up guiding tourists in Casamance, Senegal. We follow his adventures more than the others, as he is imprisoned and then kicked out of Senegal as two of the tourists he carried to neighbouring Guinea apparently came to a bad end.

So what is the point? At least part of the point is that Sweden (and maybe Europe and North America as a whole) somehow prevented people like Hasse, Ann-Marie and Jan from developing their creativity but, rather, stifled them in a welfare-state, protectionist system where creature comforts and the easy life took over. But there is another point and that is that when we get older, we look back and feel out of touch, as these three all do, and feel that somehow life has passed us by. For, in reality, life in that sense passes most of us by. There is only so much need for poets, opera singers and research scientists. The rest of us have to make a”normal” living or, like Jan, scratch a meagre living well removed from our youthful dreams.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by P A Norstedt and Söners Förlag, Stockholm
First English translation 1987 by New Directions
Translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem