Stig Dagerman’s novel Island of the Doomed is published in Russia, 75 years after its first release. Not surprising at all, writes Bengt Söderhäll, culture correspondent of the Swedish daily Arbetarbladet, as he tells the story of Dagerman’s book about humanity in distress. (article translated by Lo Dagerman)
“Dagerman’s novel about a stranded humanity ‘is a novel for our times’, says Natalia Press, Russian translator. Indeed, humankind finds itself on an island facing extinction, and although the population in Dagerman’s tale is very small, problems related to climate – both natural and interpersonal – present haunting challenges.
The Russian edition of Island of the Doomed is published by Izdatelstvo Ivana Limbakha in Saint Petersburg. It has since the late 90s been dedicated to the publication of top-rated literature that channels humanity’s yearning for freedom. The release of Stig Dagerman’s novel at this point in time is likely related to the global Zeitgeist, where nature and culture and humanistic gains are threatened by the way we humans interact and inhabit the planet.
Natalia Press is not new to Dagerman. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ‘Stig Dagerman and escapism’, that included a translation from Thousand Years with God.
Dagerman’s 75-year old novel will now reach also Russian readers and maybe it’ll be even more current than it was in the devastation that followed WWII where the focus was on reconstruction. Island of the Doomed, released in May 2021, arrives in Russia almost exactly 35 years after the disaster at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, that forced the instant realization that we all inhabit the same planet, live on the same island.
Dagerman penned his novel in 1946, one year after the atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their horror, combined with the atrocities and devastation of WWII, for a young generation set the stage for a fear-filled future. He was 23 – a writer who just the year before had made his debut with the novel The Snake.
There is a central section in Stig Dagerman’s novel where the doomed people of the island will have to decide about what they wish to leave behind. What trace to leave – regardless of whether it will ever be seen by anybody. They all have agreed on one thing: They will carve the image of a lion into a white rock. But what should it look like? A carnivore at the throat of its prey, or the king of animals running free?
Island of the Doomed initially had the working title “The Struggle for the Lion”, and was expected to be completed by July 1946. It ended up with a different title and more wide-ranging content over 340 pages. Dagerman commenced work on the novel during spring, and then returned to it early summer. He and his family, along with poet-friend Werner Aspenström and his family, then lived together at Kymmendö island in the Stockholm archipelago. Aspenström followed the work’s progression up close: “The writing of the novel slowed to a standstill, and reams of manuscript ready for copy-edit started to arrive from the publisher, probably to urge the writer on /…/ One day Stig Dagerman disappeared only to return the following day pale, exhausted, with an inward smile, after a sitting of fourteen hours without sleep, and most likely without food, having completed the last part of the novel that amounted to at least 60 printed pages.” (Aspenström, Sommar, 1968)
Presenting his finished work in October 1946, Dagerman commented on his choice of an island as the setting for the book:“The inhabited island has the advantage and attraction that the writer doesn’t risk any accusation that he’s been describing the wrong island. Furthermore, in the days before the book about this island pile up on bookstore counters, he can live in the hope that what he ‘wants to convey’ will mean more to the reader than the unknown wall onto which he has let his thoughts project. It is, of course, a symbolic island, if one by symbolic refers to the necessary compression that the world’s suffering must undergo to make it possible to be viewed, comprehended, and struggled with at a manageable level.”
In the preface to the 2010 Swedish edition of Island of the Doomed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, 2008 Stig Dagerman Award winner and Nobel laureate (in that order), writes: “Here is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable novels of the twentieth century …/…/ It is – as will be all his novels – a text loaded with his own experiences, his rebellions, his failures, but above all of it is replete with damnation and despair, a rejection of even the smallest human comfort. Is it an anarchistic novel through and through? Possibly, as it denies all progress achieved through violence and shuts itself off in the closed universe of an island, at once stalag, military camp, penal colony, and insane asylum.”
A novel for our time, a novel for the Anthropocene period, a novel to read to further thought and action about what we wish to leave behind. About our tracks. What we’ll carve into the white cliff.
A few years after Island of the Doomed, Stig Dagerman seems to comment on that fearful island where extinction only is a matter of time. But this time, in a poem, he brings all of humanity inside to a safe place:
Raise all the world’s ladders on top of each other
Let all the world’s towers unite into one
How heavenward my ceiling is tonight
In my hall all the stars are lit.
you who walk the earth: you wander indoors
you who stand on a mountain: you’re in your own room
you who see a star: you gaze at your own ceiling
you who adore life: you love the timber of this house
you who die at sea: you fall asleep indoors.”
Article by Bengt Söderhäll, free-lance writer who always is in conversation with Stig Dagerman