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Sara Lidman: Tjärdalen [The Tar Still]

No, I didn’t know what a tar still was either, but here is a definition from Merriam Webster: a still in which tar or similar material is distilled: such as a still in which the heavy residuum from the first distillation in petroleum refining is rectified.

Nils and Agda live in a remote rural farm in village in Sweden. Like many of their kind, they struggle financially. They have four children (one died when young). However, to help them financially, Nils has built a tar still, which will certainly help their fortunes, though it has taken him a long time, leaving much of the burden of the farming work on Agda. At the beginning of he book, he has finished it but has to light it, and this will require a careful watch over it for three days, as well as ideal weather conditions (i.e. little wind). He goes to discuss it with his neighbour, Gustav, who volunteers to help. (There seems to be considerable willingness to help and cooperate among the farmers in the village.)

However, when he then goes to the still, he sees that it has collapsed. What could have caused it? He then hears a groaning from inside and sees Jonas, a man whom he calls the fox. Jonas is something of an outcast in the village and now a widower, as his wife, Manta has died. He had worked for Nils. When Nils last paid him, Jonas was drunk and subsequently insists that he was not paid. This would appear to be his revenge.

Jonas is clearly badly injured so Nils gets help, and his neighbours carry Jonas back to his hovel. They are unsure of what to do, as Jonas clearly cannot look after himself. However, there appears to be no-one else to look after him and they are reluctant to carry him the distance to the hospital, not least because the hospital will expect to be paid. Finally, Vela, whom they had previously considered mentally deficient, volunteers to take care of him.

Nils, meanwhile, seems to have had something of a breakdown. He sits, alone, in the corner, refusing to eat or, indeed, do anything. He snaps at his wife and children, warning them to keep away or he won’t be responsible for his actions.

Petrus is married to Betty and, while he does not seem too capable of running his own business – he has let his sawmill fail, not least because he has not taken care of his saw. He is also in considerable debt and, during course of the book, frequently considers getting a job or even emigrating to the United States. However, he is the person people turn to when they need help or assistance. It is he who tries to console Nils. He is shown up as being in marked distinction to Blom, the evangelical.

When Nils has what looks like a fit, Petrus diagnoses it as epilepsy. Blom claims it is the devil struggling with Nils’ soul and prays over him. When he recovers, Blom claims credit for fighting off the devil. Blom seems to have a hold over the village during their unusual period of trouble and many of them turn to him, feeling that God has judged them. However, the rational ones gradually come to realise that Petrus’ kindness and good-heartedness, as well as his rational approach, is what is best for the village.

When issues arise, such as Albert, the store owner and one of the few people in the village to have any money, buys the remains of the still from Agda on the cheap, it is Petrus who intervenes. Indeed, much of the second half of the book is about what we could call the struggle for the soul of the village, as represented by Petrus, on the one hand, and Blom on the other. Lidman makes it very clear which side she is on, even through Petrus clearly is a flawed man.

This was Lidman’s first book and it is a very mature novel for a first one. She does not get carried away but shows that basic goodness and kindness, even if there are flaws and weaknesses, is ultimately the way to go, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. The various characters in the book are all well-drawn and by no means are they ciphers for her views. She certainly makes the point that much of the burden falls on the women in such a community, with Agda having to step up when Nils is unwell and Betty when Petrus is off doing good works but this is not a radical feminist novel, but, rather, a novel about people .

Publishing history

First published 1953 by Bonnier
No English translation
First published in French as La Meule à goudron in 1959 by Calmann-Lévy
Translated by Marthe Metzger
First published in German as Der Mensch ist so geschaffen later: (Das Teertal) in 1955 by Herbig
Translated by Hilda von Born-Pilsach
Also published in Danish