Swedish author Alex Schulman works on his last book, which is also his first true novel, during his childhood. Biographical elements in Survivors are imaginatively enriched, which indeed played an important role in Schulman’s earlier books and contributions. The novel tells the story of an increasingly disintegrating family. Parents are alcoholics, the three siblings are torn apart. After so many years of apartheid, one mission brings them together again: to scatter their mothers’ ashes.
It is not uncommon for horror to be hidden behind seeming frivolity. Looking at it from the outside, one often hears that everything seemed so perfect. Relationships, family history, the sole culprits. Ideologies have always thrown a pure mantle over the growing dung heap they produce. Today we are faced with products that seem to have fallen from the sky, soft and pure as they appeared behind the window. No dirt, no production, no cobalt, no human rights violations.
The Survivors by Swedish author Alex Schulman also begins with a poetic figure. Wooden house on a wide meadow with a lake surrounded by a forest. The couple sits at the table, enjoying the last rays of the sun, while the three sons, encouraged by their father, swim in a race on the lake. This is the perfect world that is sold to us every day. And sellers are glad that we often do not read more, nor look closely, because we get it and go for it. Fortunately, we overlook the fact that the last rays of the sun are disappearing, darkness falls, the parents come home and the three brothers, frightened and lost, fear for their lives like three little dots in the middle of a great body. from water. We will not be able to say: they survived only with the combined forces. Neither of them: they have lived to die almost countless times.
We follow the events from the perspective of the middle brother, Benjamin. He was nine years old in the summer he almost drowned. Pierre is two years younger and Nils four years older than him. The three compete for the attention of their alcoholic parents, albeit in different ways. The love that can be expected from there is scattered, the more stubborn the brothers compete with each other. They only stick with each other in those moments when it literally comes to survival.
Alex Shulman shows us the wrong ways of the family. He created two narrative paths that converge chronologically, opposing chronologically. The background story begins with the arrival of a police car at the parents’ summer home. Two of the brothers beat each other bloodily, almost killing each other. From there, the review begins, questioning how this happened, where the hatred, the unbridled anger come from. From the bloody brothers we go through to the death of the mother, which was the catalyst for this meeting in the summer house. She wrote in a letter to the children to scatter their ashes on the lake: “II don’t want you to do that for me. (…) I want you to do it for your own good.”
The second thread begins where the boys swim against each other. This summer is full of dark, shocking and life-threatening adventures. It ends with Benjamin’s therapy sessions, shortly after he attempts suicide.
Natural is the threat
Shulman shows the disembodied poetess, as a place of inner and outer prison, without becoming pathetic or even lazy. On the contrary, he writes with persuasive clarity, with the clarity necessary to sort out and decipher the accumulated fatigue of one’s childhood, to tame the screams and thunder in one’s brain.
The absence of parental care – the main theme of the novel – is illustrated as nature appears as a threat. The vastness of the forest, for example, is always a danger. The advent of darkness threatens life. Then there’s the childish curiosity – also natural – that leads Benjamin to the Transformers Little House – entry is strictly forbidden! – to explore. The hum and hum of the river enchants him. He reaches out, and the sound gets louder the closer he gets to the thick tubes. He could die. When he wakes up, the family dog Molly, whom his mother always raised, lies dead next to his charred body. a A heavy loss eventually leads to the collapse of the already fragile building.
For hundreds of pages we were led by the two brothers’ phrases, our existential fatigue felt quite well, but we didn’t remotely think of leaving the book. In the end, the present and the past meet, fraternal blood is followed by fraternal tears, and in the end the three of them are left with what remains with Alex Schulman: language.
Alex Shulman (translation: Hanna Granz): “Survivors”; dtv, 2021, 304 pages, €22