Politics And Personal Space In ‘Red Winter’ By Anneli Furmark

by Koom Kankesan

I was excited to read Anneli Furmark’s Red Winter from Drawn & Quarterly. An acclaimed graphic novelist in her native Sweden, this was the first time I had heard of her. For North Americans, the story will be a displacement in space and time, but also perhaps in sensibility. Set in the North of Sweden during the late seventies, the story looks at a number of characters whose personal lives are affected by the political climate of the times.
I wasn’t sure what to expect – I grew up with an image in my mind of the sexy, clean Nordic aesthetic of Ikea commercials and the like. And later in life, the glossy, tortured, chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman’s films. I love Bergman but I gather that he’s an outlier, aesthetically speaking, when it comes to Swedish culture – part of Bergman’s thing was that he would rail against the conservatism, hypocrisy, and bourgeoisie of his times. The Bourgeoisie are front and centre in Furmark’s work, but more in a Marxist-Leninist sense. One of the book’s protagonists is Ulrik, a young twenty-four year old who has come to town to work on behalf of the Communist party, organizing strikes, selling newspapers, attending meetings, studying ideology, and so forth.

The other protagonist (and the one that Furmark’s writing is closer to) is Siv, a woman in her mid thirties who has three children, is married, and belongs to the conservative Social-Democrat party which has been in power for decades, fosters a capitalist mandate, but has begun to lose some of its stronghold. The problem? They’re in love. At the start of the book, Siv and Ulrik are conducting a secret affair that could be problematic not only for the people affected (Siv’s family, Ulrik’s political comrades, and the fairly conservative society in which they live). Ulrik is a romantic idealist and wants Siv to leave her husband but Siv ponders everything. They both write diaries of sorts, which speaks more to the difficulty of ultimately being able to speak to other people or each other.

The drama is never turgid or climactic, until the very end when their affair is exposed and they must deal with the consequences. Instead, Furmark deals with the small moments of people’s interior lives and feelings. Each chapter focuses on a different character. I especially like the ones that focus on Siv’s children, Marita and Peter. Furmark has more of a feel for her female characters but the dynamic between Peter and his gang of friends, and what that can be like for a fourteen year old, is especially poignant. Even Siv’s husband gets a chapter but it’s hard to feel sympathetic for this well-meaning cog in the capitalist machine who cannot communicate with his wife.

This book is about how political institutions control or affect people’s personal lives. It’s especially devastating in Ulrik’s case as his party forms a committee to decide his future – not just at the end of the book, once his secret is out, but from the get-go. As he says “What do you mean?… Everything I do is for the struggle. My whole inheritance from my grandfather went directly to the party.” His ‘mentor’ Ralf, an unpleasant controlling character, tells him that ‘nothing is private, not as long as there is a capitalist society.’ Every last inch of personal freedom must be given to the party. It’s chilling, almost like the personal realization Winston Smith comes to in ‘1984.’ Furmark does not seem to care about actual politics so much as she does about politics’ effects on peoples’ lives. She is not a polemicist. (That’s a lot of p’s – and I didn’t even use the word proletariat.)
Furmark does this by tracing people’s lives through small details. Except for the climax, she does not go for big moments or accelerated pacing. Her framing is dependably conservative and she eschews dynamic layouts. I don’t know if that’s intentional as I haven’t seen any of her other works, but it creates a sort of staid stifling pacing which serves to reflect the political climate that is depicted. This is abetted by the wintry setting of her story and the watery colours that seem to be fading on the page as you read. The title itself refers to communism, but it’s perhaps the most fiery thing in the whole book. The feel is not unlike that of Eastern European films where you can feel the weight of the artist’s voice trying to slough off decades of communist control. The book is definitely worth a read and I’ll look forward to other works in translation by the author.

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