Lisa's Reviews > Aniara: En revy om människan i tid och rum

Aniara by Harry Martinson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, nobels

Of all Nobels on my shelves, Harry Martinson's Aniara is the one I have reflected on the most, unable to put it into comprehensible context, and to give it an honest and fair evaluation. I don't claim to be able to do it now either, but I can't stand the idea of this favourite being left to travel in a void, straight ahead into space without any recognition from me, the grateful reader. It has shaped my relation to Swedish literature more than anything else.

Being a poem, a science fiction post-apocalyptic verse epos, and a deeply disturbing journey into the human condition, it is one of the books I quite often open randomly to enjoy the brilliant Swedish verse. I actually bought an English translation, second hand but very expensive, because I thought I could read excerpts from it with my students, but in the end, Martinson's language was so much connected to Swedish in my mind that I did not go ahead with the project.

Of all the Nobel Prizes in Literature, the one awarded to Martinson and Johnson in 1974 is probably the most disputed. Both were members of Svenska Akademien at the time, and they had to endure harsh criticism for receiving the prize from their own colleagues. It is still a sore chapter in Swedish literary history, and Martinson's dramatic suicide is thought to be directly linked to the fact that he was deeply hurt by the reaction to the Nobel award.

Politics aside, having read quite a lot by both Johnson and Martinson, and at least two or three works by all other laureates worldwide as well, I belong to the party claiming they deserved the honour DESPITE being in the academy.

Aniara speaks for itself. A group of survivors after an apocalyptic catastrophe on Earth travel straight ahead, without goal, in space, still mourning what they lost, and trying to make sense of their existence in a void.

The result is a strange swaying back and forth between over-exalted emotions and complete numbness, - a scary feature of hopelessness which I recognise in many layers of global society today. While Wells in his The Island of Dr. Moreau still finds hope and solace in humankind's heart despite wild experiments with horrible outcomes, the dystopia of the nuclear age is bleak, hopeless, an eternal trap.

"Efforts at escape through flights of mind
and fading in and out from dream to dream -
such methods were at hand.
With one leg washed by surges of emotion,
the other resting on emotive death,
we'd often stand.
My questions of myself got no reply.
I dreamed a life up, but I lived a lie.
I ranged the universe, but passed it by -
for captive on Aniara here was I."

The Swedish flow of words is a song, creeping under my skin:

"Försök till räddning genom tankeflykt
och överglidningar från dröm till dröm
blev ofta vår metod.
Med ena benet dränkt i känslosvall
det andra med sitt stöd i känslodöd
vi ofta stod.
Jag frågade mig själv men glömde svara.
Jag drömde mig ett liv men glömde vara.
Jag reste alltet runt men
glömde fara. -
Ty jag satt fånge här i Aniara."

Being locked forever in a small community, similar to the one evoked by Brooks in The Bunker Diary in its inevitable isolation and lack of possibilities, different religions and groups start to form according to the personalities of the inhabitants, leading to a cult of regret at the loss of paradise, which in this case is the less than perfect Earth they had to evacuate from:

"In Memory Hall there are recanters' fêtes
and those immersed most deeply in recanting
have gathered, bearing ashes on their pates,
self-torturers with their recanting-chanting:

Stand and confess. The walls of grievous rage
are closing on the fate we engineered.
our doom is mirror-image to the cage
at which from outside we at one time sneered."

"I Minneshallen hålls det ångermässor
och de som sjunkit djupast i sin ånger
ha samlats där med askbeströdda hjässor
torterande sig själv med ångersånger:

Stån upp till svars. Den tunga vredens murar
sig sluter om det öde vi beredde.
Vårt straff är spegelbilden av de burar
som en gång utifrån vi själv beledde."

The Aniara travellers try different illusions to make their life more bearable, such as artificial gardens or projections in space to fill it with the illusion of context. These schemes fail, as the humans are too aware of the tricks and only feel more definitely detached from the earth they left behind. Theirs is a world where God and Satan drop their eternal fight and unite in mourning over the human disaster:

"Describe the creature fine and fair
who sewed the shrouds for his own seed
till God and Satan hand in hand
through a deranged and poisoned land
took flight uphill and down
from man: a king with ashen crown.

Beskriv den människa som i glans
sit släktes likdräkt sydde
tills Gud och Satan hand i hand
i ett förstört, förgiftat land
kring berg och backar flydde
för människan, askans konung."

The dichotomy of the beautiful, heart-warming verse and the scary message is omnipresent in Martinson's epic poem, and the relevance of the worrying scenario is as acute now as in the 1950s. The world is still developing in a direction where power to destroy is given to people with no sense of love and responsibility for the beautiful nature of our shared planet and our common cultural heritage.

Aniara is a cautionary tale, holding up the mirror of regret when it is too late: don't travel straight ahead without purpose!

Noble Nobel Martinson! You were well worth your award.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 25, 2014 – Shelved
June 25, 2014 – Shelved as: favorites
September 17, 2016 – Shelved as: nobels

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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Lisa Jean-Paul wrote: ""The world is still developing in a direction where power to destroy is given to people with no sense of love and responsibility for the beautiful nature of our shared planet and our common cultura..."

Thank you Jean-Paul! That review took me decades to write, in a way, slowly but steadily peeling the onion to get to the essence of what the book meant to me. I think you'd like Martinson. The verse epos is of course hard to translate, but his prose is equally appealing.
I am happy I gave you a Saturday treat after you offered me Flaubert for dessert yesterday :-)


message 2: by Julie (new)

Julie Lovely review, Lisa. Spellbound by it, as much as I feel I would be by Martinson ... if only I could read Swedish. (Alas, some things are just lost in translation.)


message 3: by Dolors (new)

Dolors All kind of emotion, be it bliss or paralizing terror, seems purer, even magnified, when expressed through verse. I shiver reading the extracts you've shared in this review and marvel at your skill in portraying the scope of Martison's post-apocalyptic poetry. Thanks for this sublime review and for keeping up with the luxurious tour through the Nobel laureates!


Lisa Julie wrote: "Lovely review, Lisa. Spellbound by it, as much as I feel I would be by Martinson ... if only I could read Swedish. (Alas, some things are just lost in translation.)"

Thank you, Julie! You are right with the translation. The poetry sounds different, but the message is equally chilling!


Lisa Dolors wrote: "All kind of emotion, be it bliss or paralizing terror, seems purer, even magnified, when expressed through verse. I shiver reading the extracts you've shared in this review and marvel at your skill..."

Thank you Dolors! I couldn't agree more about the power of poetry. Martinson had a special feeling for dramatic action as well, making the impact of the poetical language even stronger.
And yes, I keep going through my Nobels... I love that section in my library dearly!


message 6: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I saw a stage version once in Stockholm but have never read it. You make me feel I should do that! Thank you :)


Lisa Manny wrote: "I saw a stage version once in Stockholm but have never read it. You make me feel I should do that! Thank you :)"

Yes, I think it might be to your liking, Manny, combining many of your interests. If you read it in Swedish, which I recommend, the completely black paperback is very appropriate - the setting for the rocket is the endless dark space! But he might be out of print in Sweden. I wouldn't be altogether surprised.
Have you read anything else by Harry Martinson?


message 8: by Sidharth (new) - added it

Sidharth Vardhan A very powerful review. You made me change sides over whether they deserved price. I was prejudiced - never having read anything from either.


message 9: by Lizzy (new)

Lizzy Beautiful review, Lisa. I envy you for all your readings of the Nobels. L.


message 10: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Sidharth wrote: "A very powerful review. You made me change sides over whether they deserved price. I was prejudiced - never having read anything from either."

I was as well, Sidharth! Very much so. I did not want to like anything Eyvind Johnson or Harry Martinson wrote. But I am Swedish, and I was confronted with their work whether I liked it or not. And oh, my gosh, I fell in love with both of them, for very different reasons. The sad thing is that most people who condemned them and brought Martinson to the point of not wanting to live anymore probably judged them without having read them.
Sad! And the Academy has chosen much less worthy candidates over the course of the century! If I were to disqualify two Swedes, it would be Karlfeldt and Tranströmer, who are widely unread for good reasons... Well, Tranströmer is the only Nobel Laureate whose entire ouevre I read in an afternoon... Can't remember one single poem that stuck with me, despite reading the volume twice. Maybe I should reread his collected work? I have an hour tomorrow afternoon... ;-)


message 11: by Gaurav (new) - added it

Gaurav A beautiful review, Lisa, thanks for bringing it to my attention :)


message 12: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Lizzy wrote: "Beautiful review, Lisa. I envy you for all your readings of the Nobels. L."

Thank you Lizzie!
The Nobels and I have a long history together. Ever since I was about twenty years old, my parents have been giving me one or two of the works of the most recent laureate for Christmas. That means that I have been reading them regularly for twenty years now, which is half of my life :-)

Some ten years ago I decided to start reading the earlier ones as well, and at some point I had read them all, some more extensively than others. Which is why I get slightly obsessive in October, eager to see now if I know and like the laureate even before the awards or not...


message 13: by Sidharth (new) - added it

Sidharth Vardhan I have to say I liked the few poems I read from Tranströmer I have read, although I am not much of a good judge about poems. Knew nothing about Karlfeldt.

I have read a few laureates and there were some I found weak choices, although only one I wish removed is Naipaul. His books set in India could serve as example of orientalist's interpretations Edward Said wrote about. I read his one book about India and found it.... so 1820. Then I learnt that same is true for his books set in Africa and Middle-East. He seems to be writing to please some old colonial by serving only selective truth.

Then as if to serve the cherry, his opinions about women fiction were similarly 1820. And believe me I am not giving full list of reasons here.


message 14: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Sidharth wrote: "I have to say I liked the few poems I read from Tranströmer I have read, although I am not much of a good judge about poems. Knew nothing about Karlfeldt.

I have read a few laureates and there we..."


It is so interesting to see how authors resonate differently with people. I am actually happy to hear you liked Tranströmer, because for me, he symbolised boring yesteryear, and I was left completely cold. In the case of Naipaul, I read his novels very much like you said, as documents of a mindset formed by earlier times, but I did not get angry at them as in the case of Tranströmer, probably because Naipaul is not a representative of the conservative elements of MY country?
In a way, this speaks for the Nobel Laureates, as a group representing the world in its polyphonic diversity.

Thank you so much for your thoughts, it really means a lot to me to hear your perspective.


Czarny Pies Thanks for the excerpts in Swedish. This is helpful. I remember hearing a radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1960s. Aniara is clearly one of the great works written in the aftermath of Hiroshimi.


message 16: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Czarny wrote: "Thanks for the excerpts in Swedish. This is helpful. I remember hearing a radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1960s. Aniara is clearly one of the great works written in the aft..."

Agree, Czarny. It is the best verse novel I know. The best Swedish novel. Well, it is a star of a space ship.


Berit Lundqvist Read it a long time ago, and you really inspired med to reread it. It’s fantastic.

English translation here:
https://www.scribd.com/doc/238998252/...


message 18: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Berit wrote: "Read it a long time ago, and you really inspired med to reread it. It’s fantastic.

English translation here:
https://www.scribd.com/doc/238998252/..."


Yes, it has a unique place in Swedish literature.


Czarny Pies Berit wrote: "Read it a long time ago, and you really inspired med to reread it. It’s fantastic.

English translation here:
https://www.scribd.com/doc/238998252/..."


I am currently reading a French Version because that was what was available in the local library. It is proving to be excellent.

Can you tell me if Aniara had rhyme and meter or was it written in free verse.


Czarny Pies Lisa wrote: "Czarny wrote: "Thanks for the excerpts in Swedish. This is helpful. I remember hearing a radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in the early 1960s. Aniara is clearly one of the great works wri..."

From the Swedish extract in your review, it appears to me that Aniara could be written in true verse. However, the French translation is in free verse. Is there rhyme and meter in the Swedish text?


Berit Lundqvist I’ve just finished The Swedish version. It is written in a mixture of true and free verse. I could at least recognise jambic verse. I guess other verse forms are also used.


Czarny Pies Berit wrote: "I’ve just finished The Swedish version. It is written in a mixture of true and free verse. I could at least recognise jambic verse. I guess other verse forms are also used."

Thanks. As I said the French version which is wonderful is written entirely in free verse .

I am old to recall the sensation that the opera made in the opera world in the early sixties. I am surprised that it has more or less disappeared from the operatic stage.


Robin Helweg-Larsen I've just reread the MacDiarmid/Schubert translation. Thank you for the Swedish bits, I was curious for a taste of the versification (I'm a formalist myself - formalverse.com). I'll have to look for it in Swedish (or Danish...)


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