Tag Archives: Utøya

Criminal peripheries: Dahlberg’s Memory Wound and the national trauma of Utøya, 22. July 2011

I wanted to share the introduction to my research paper on Criminal Peripheries in Scandinavian Crime Fiction with the Nordic Noir Book Club, as I think many of you have also seen and been impressed by the winning project for the Oslo/Utøya memorials.

I am giving the paper at the annual SASS 2014 conference at Yale University on Thursday. My introduction discusses the recently revealed memorial commemorating 22. July 2011, and in the paper I wonder about why the Swedish artist wants to cut up the landscape.

Last week the winning project for the “Memorial Sites After 22. July” was revealed in Norway. These are the site-specific memorials that will commemorate the most notorious criminal periphery in recent Nordic history, the terrorist attacks on the government quarters in Oslo and the Worker’s Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011, attacks that claimed 77 lives. 

The Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s memorial to the Utøya massacre entitled “Memory Wound” has been met with almost unanimous positive reactions in the global and social media – which by no means was a given, since such national memorials are more often than not widely contested sites, since they inevitably make a claim for representing a particular and permanent version of what is in essence a complex collective memory.

For the memorial the artist proposes to ‘slice a three-and-a-half-metre-wide slit into the Sørbråten peninsula, which faces the island of Utøya and to transfer “one hundred cubic metres of the stone cut from Sørbråten to the governmental quarter in Oslo, where another memorial will mark the spot where a car bomb was detonated”. Dahlberg explains that his concept for the memorial: “[…] proposes a wound or a cut within nature itself. It reproduces the physical experience of taking away, reflecting the abrupt and permanent loss of those who died. The cut will be a three-and-a-half-meters-wide excavation. It slices from the top of the headland at the Sørbråten site, to below the water line and extends to each side. This void in the landscape makes it impossible to reach the end of the headland.” (see www.bustler.net)

It is in many ways an evocative memorial that produces in the visitor an immediate emotional response – not least when one is reading Dahlberg’s almost clinical forensic description of an autopsy on memory and the landscape. The memorial inscribes into the very landscape, so central to the Norwegian national imagination, the immediate shock and permanent trauma of the mass murder experienced by the victims’ families, the survivors and the nation as a whole.

The void in the landscape replicates a mode of representing collective traumas that we recognize in Daniel Libeskind’s architectural voids in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. As Libeskind’s voids represent the absence of Jews in the heart of the German capital, Dahlberg’s Earthwork clearly signifies absence, the permanent absence of the victims. As a void that fractures the landscape and precludes access, it also signifies history: “a broken history without continuity” (Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts, 68).

It suggests that just as the void visualizes the permanent trauma and loss experienced by the survivors and those who lost a child or a friend, it also points to a more collective impossibility of “going back to” a time before the events, and as such, the Memory Wound figures the history of Norway itself: a secure, trustful, modernised and wealthy welfare society, whose peripheral self-perception had left the nation untouched by the evils of global risks, now wounded and exiled permanently from its innocent past.

Only a few days following the attacks, the Norwegian bestselling crime writer Jo Nesbø wrote an article entitled “The past is a foreign country” that was printed both in The Guardian and in the New York Times. While the article ends with his hopeful belief in the resilience of the Norwegian people to resist becoming fearful and lose its social trust, the title also suggests that merely a week following the attacks, the innocent Norway had become but a memory, imbued with nostalgia and a deep sense of loss. “Until Friday,” Nesbø writes, “we thought of our country as a virgin – unsullied by the ills of society”. His anxieties for the attacks’ effect on life in Norway are expressed in the compulsively repeated phrase “There is no road back to the way it was before”, which reveals the traumatic condition under which the article was written. Nesbø’s Norway after the attacks is a country whose extraordinary sense of security and innocence has been forever lost, a past in which the prime minister could cycle the streets and chat with the public with security guards safely in the background while wearing a cycling helmet.

Henning Mankell also wrote about the loss of innocence in an article where he refers to Hannah Arendt’s studies of the Holocaust: “The distant and in many ways idyllic Norway, the country with the oil and the wealth, is suddenly exposed to the banality of evil”.
Dahlberg’s memory wound, the void in the landscape, concurs with Nesbø and Mankell’s early conclusions: Norway is no longer “unsullied by the ills of society” – this is a wound in the very foundation of the nation that cannot heal. The crimes in Oslo and on Utøya have made this geopolitical periphery a great deal more like the rest of our globalised ‘runaway world’. And soon, with Dahlberg’s monumental Earthwork, Norway will have a memorial to match the global craze for large-scale memorials to, for instance, the Holocaust, the World Wars or 9/11.

The Memory Wound is particularly interesting in the way it and its artist engage traumatic memories with the age-old confrontation between nature and culture, which is, of course, always central to Earthworks or LandArt. And it is with the following cluster of phenomena that my paper will explore an example of the literary Nordic criminal peripheries: nature, landscape, forests, crime, trauma, the welfare state and ecology.
After revelling in the sublime site of the Memory Wound, an environmentally inclined spectator may wonder why the artist has found a violent attack on nature to be a fitting commemoration for the youth who fell so numerously as victims to the violent acts of, granted, a very different man. Jonas Dahlberg recounts that one “emotional observation” has informed his overall concept:
During the initial site visit to Utøya, I noticed how different the feeling was of walking outside in nature, compared to the feeling of walking through the rooms of the main building. The experience of seeing the vacant rooms and the traces of extreme violence brought me — and others around me — to a state of profound sadness. In its current state, the building kept close within it the memory of the terror acts of July 22, 2011. Like an open wound. But while the building produced these feelings, nature was somehow different. Although we stood directly on the very place where many people had lost their lives, nature had already begun to obscure all traces.

The emotional experience of absence and the void left by the traces of extreme violence on Utøya is produced in the buildings on the island – it is when going through the vacant rooms that the visitors are faced with the “open wound” of the events. But what seems almost as horrific is the difference, or should we say indifference of nature towards the location in which people had lost their lives: “nature had already begun to obscure all traces”.

The Memory Wound, as other memorials, is only partly about remembering the events that happened here and the people who died, the memorial is only partly about the traumatic event itself. It is, however, as much a work attacking the very nature or precondition of memory, namely forgetting. By revenging itself against nature, on behalf of those in mourning, the memorial fights against cyclical time, regeneration and the healing of wounds, against forgetting, by inserting a man-made fissure into nature itself. Nature has to be interrupted in its growth lest it should forget what it has witnessed as a passive bystander to the atrocities.



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The Norway Attacks

Rose March in Oslo (from BBC.co.uk)

We are all trying to come to terms with the attacks in Oslo and on Utøya on the 22. July, and our Norwegian friends are constantly in our thoughts as they bravely and with resolve stand together in the face of an unfathomable evil, which attempted to shatter a society’s belief in openness and democratic liberties.

It has been particularly heart warming to see two of the most prominent Scandinavian crime writers, Mankell and Nesbø, so eloquently explaining the situation in Norway in The Guardian (Mankell) and New York Times (Nesbø) –  and not only giving their version of why something like this could happen in peaceful Norway, but also stoically pointing to a way forward. I wonder what Stieg Larsson would have written on this occasion seeing that his activism and journalism particularly monitored right-wing extremism in Sweden and beyond in a not too distant past.

Many people ask themselves why Norway? why now? could it have been prevented? are Scandinavian countries being flooded by violent crime and right-wing extremism? and even, is there a connection between the mass of Scandinavian crime writing and the events in Oslo and Utøya? Has Scandinavian crime fiction predicted that such evil acts could take place in Norway or in other Scandinavian countries? etc. I have been interviewed for a number of newspapers about the events and their cultural impact, and have seen such questions repeated. The interviews will appear in the Slovenian newspaper Delo and in the Italian on-line journal Affaritaliani.it over the weekend. I assume the readers of this blog are not all fluent in Slovenian or Italian, so I thought I would post some of the questions I have been asked and my extended answers here, to share my thoughts and hear your own opinions.

Norway has always been seen as a bastion of openness and tolerance. In your view why did it happen in such a tranquil and peaceful country like Norway and why now?

The events in Norway have to be seen in a European and global perspective. In Europe in the recent decades we have seen a radicalisation and polarisation of attitudes towards immigration and particularly immigration from Muslim countries; we have witnessed a growing scepticism towards multiculturalism, the European project and globalisation – and judging from the success of right-wing nationalist parties in most European countries there seems to be a fairly large group of Europeans who fear the perceived loss of the nation state and national cultures. This is not particular to Norway or to the Scandinavian countries, but a general European trend. There is a right-wing nationalist political party in Norway, The Progress Party, which is similar in size to a party in Denmark; and in Sweden there was also at the last election a growth in support for right-wing parties sceptical of immigration, multiculturalism (which is today even a mainstream political view as expressed by Heads of State in Germany and in the UK), EU and globalisation. As in most European countries, Norway also has smaller groupings of right-wing extremists who have fascist or neo-nazi leanings, and who today organize or communicate across national borders via the internet, as was the case with Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. As far as it has been made public, it seems that he should be considered a fanatic nationalist-conservative Christian who embarked on a politically motivated crusade against the political establishment in Norway – the Social Democratic party and their pragmatic approach to immigration and multiculturalism. But being a nationalist, a conservative or a Christian, or even all of these together, does not explain the actions of this one individual.

Though the Scandinavian countries have never been mono-cultural, there has been and continues to be a very strong sense of national belonging, solidarity and equality between the citizens, which have made the welfare states with their aim of universal social security and individual freedom and social responsibility possible – the advent of immigration from culturally fairly different regions of the world to the Scandinavian countries from the 1980s and onwards, was followed by a fear for some that the newcomers would challenge the cultural and social coherence of the Welfare states. There is, therefore, no doubt that immigration has polarised the political debate in Norway and the Scandinavian countries. The political rhetoric has increasingly become hardened and unforgiving, and I believe that there is a connection between the way Scandinavian politicians and opinion makers have singled out immigration, and particularly Muslim immigrants, as the sole reason for the current challenges to society (loss of jobs, economic uncertainty, deteriorating welfare services, etc) and the radicalisation of racist and political violence. However, I do not believe that such radicalisation of rhetoric and action can be contained by nation states in today’s globalised world, in an EU with open borders and ubiquitous electronic communication channels.

Is the Norwegian far right movement so strong? Or this tragedy may be related more to one single person’s madness?

I do not believe the far-right movement in Norway to be stronger than in other European societies, but it is certainly not weaker. What has so far been reported seems to paint a picture of a fanatic individual who acted on his own, but found sympathies with other fanatics in and outside of Scandinavia. One has to differentiate between the right-wing political movements who use their democratically established rights to seek political influence and fanatic individuals or groups who use anti-democratic and violent means to further individual agendas. The present case is of the latter, I believe.

So far, the most chilling fact about the events in Norway is that the perpetrator may not be clinically insane but evil and cold-blooded believing his actions necessary to save his country. As such, his actions force us to look deeply into the darker sides of extreme nationalism, to consider critically the increasingly more violent rhetoric when it comes to solving global and regional problems with violence, and to seek political and democratic consensus that will prevent the inflammatory scapegoating of immigrants and refugees as the cause of all the ills in our societies.

What do you expect for Norway in the future? Is this tragedy going to affect the domestic political life? Are we going to see a less liberal country? And do you think the government will act tougher against the extremism?

As many have already expressed it, there was a Norway before the bomb in Oslo and the mass murder on Utøya and a Norway after. This is a national catastrophe and a trauma that will imprint itself on the cultural and individual memory forever. In this respect, it is Norway’s Peal Harbour, Norway’s Palme murder. It is an attack on Norwegians’ sense of security and trust in fellow Norwegians, which are corner stones in the well-functioning and open welfare society. However, as both the Norwegian prime minister, the King and others have expressed it, the Norwegian society will attempt to resist limiting the freedoms of the citizens, and will resist the fear this act of horrendous violence attempted to inflict. I do not believe we are going to see a less liberal Norway in the future. However I do believe that the event will have consequences for how Norway and other countries deal with home-grown, right-wing extremism in the future within the remits of the constitutions. In the short term, there will be a considerable impact on domestic political life in Norway. The left receives a lot of sympathy, and I believe Norwegians will involve themselves more actively  in the democratic processes of society (where they have always been very active compared to other nations), in parties to the left of the right wing Progress Party, a party that will face a difficult time in the short term as it attempts to distance itself from the actions of a former member of their party. In the long term, these events will be a reference point, hopefully for the good, when it comes to how we perceive and protect the civil liberties of all citizens, from the Prime Minister and the politically active youth to the new Norwegians with their minority ethnicities, cultures and religions.

Why do you think world famous crime writers from Scandinavia mostly write crime stories about far-right wing movement? It is like they predict the tragedy that happened.

First of all, I do not agree that most of the famous crime writers from Scandinavian write about far-right movements. Obviously, the most famous Scandinavian crime writer, Stieg Larsson from Sweden, was as a journalist a very important international voice in the anti-fascist movement and documented right-wing extremist groups in his journal, Expo, which is quite similar to the Millenium magazine in his famous trilogy. In the crime novels, Larsson’s plot draws ties back to Swedish Nazi sympathisers of the Second World War, but it is centrally a novel about the dominance of big capital, violence against women and a corrupt police force. Only a grain of this is reflecting the current state of the Swedish society, but it exhibits the fears of what might lay beneath the safe and harmonious surface. One could say that the evils exposed in the Millenium trilogy set in Sweden become more forceful because of being set in a very ordered state where violent crime and serial killers are rare and corruption is low.

Many of the Scandinavian crime writers have written what might be called socio-realist crime novels from a leftist perspective. Authors such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson (in Sweden), Jo Nesbø and Gunnar Staalesen in Norway have used the crime fiction genre, partly or wholly, as a way to expose the hidden conflicts and traumas in the Scandinavian societies, such as their reluctant engagement with multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, violence against women, imperialism and human trafficking, not to mention the still and increasingly more present underbelly of society, the social outcasts and the marginalised.

There are in fact fewer mass murderers or serial killers in Scandinavian crime fiction compared to American crime fiction, but one example is in the Norwegian bestselling author Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman. It would be too far-fetched to claim that the evil nature of Nesbø’s serial killer is a prediction of the Norwegian tragedy, as it would be wrong to claim that any Scandinavian crime fiction could predict the mass murder and bomb attack. However, crime fiction such as Nesbø’s is a good place to go if one wants to reflect on the nature of evil and individuals’ and societies’ responses to it. In The Snowman we find an interesting and very suggestive reflection on evil, expressed by Harry Hole’s colleague who is terminally ill with cancer. In my translation (I don’t have the English edition with me) he says that “the older I get the more I am led to believe that evil is evil, with or without madness. We are all more or less disposed to commit evil deeds, but our disposition does not free us from guilt. For Christ’s sake, we are all sick and disturbed individuals. And it is precisely our actions that define how sick we are.” I think this is a good way to think about the evil nature of the crime and the criminal in Norway.

While Scandinavian crime fiction may not have predicted the unpredictable deeds of the mass murderer in Norway, and while I do not see any connection between the success of Scandinavian crime fiction and the horrific real crimes we have just witnessed an example of, crime fiction can offer us a way to imagine how such evil comes into existence and how we may react to it as individuals and as a society

Scandinavia crime writers like Mankell and Larsson are not just writers but also fighters for human wrights, do you think that it is specific for crime writers in Scandinavia?

Mankell was a political activist on the left before becoming a crime writer, and Larsson was both an activist and journalist on an anti-fascist journal before turning to crime writing. Mankell donates money to a village for homeless children in Mozambique, and took part in the flotilla which tried to break the Israeli embargo of the Gaza strip – he has also been outspoken against the dangers of nationalism in Norway. I do not think that crime writers more than any other writers are more likely to act on their social conscience as activists or to be actively involved as intellectuals in debates with real world relevance. What we do find, however, is that many contemporary crime writers have journalistic or leftist activist backgrounds; they have found the crime genre to be an effective way to speak up about current issues and a way to communicate and sell their writings to a large audience. They often use their knowledge and skills as reporters and researchers to add interesting details to their crime fiction.

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen




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