It’s not without some justification that Stockholm calls itself the ‘Venice of the North’ and the ‘Capital of Scandinavia’. But on my first day, rather than queuing up before one of the city’s 80 museums or taking a sightseeing tour around its 14 islands, I’m standing on a nondescript street in Sodermalm (the Bohemian quarter) admiring the snow. It’s around 0 degrees and although I’m well suited up to weather the cold, I can see my breath steam before me – a reminder that I’m far away from Mumbai’s March heat.
As soon as my guide Asa arrives, she positions our group in front of No. 1, Bellmansgatan, an unremarkable address until author Stieg Larsson made it the home of Mikael Blomkvist, his main character in the Millennium series, comprising The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is the starting point for the Millennium tour, now Stockholm’s newest attraction following the huge success of Larsson’s books (according to Wikipedia, he was the second best-selling author in the world in 2008. The Swedish movie of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo just released in the UK and US).
But Larsson is just one wave in the tide of Swedish crime fiction books washing up on foreign shores – making it Sweden’s newest export. “Nothing like this has ever happened to Swedish authors before, but Larsson is not the spearhead,” explains Lasse Winkler, editor of the country’s premier literary journal. “In the ’90s, no Swedish authors were sold abroad. But the German market at that time came to the Nordic countries looking for new authors. When they discovered Henning Mankell, his success just exploded. And last year, Larsson sold three million books in Spain alone.”
Walking on ice cubes
As we head to some of the other locations featured in the books, taking care to avoid the stretches of melting snow (which feels exactly like walking on ice cubes and is as slippery), Asa tells us that we are also following in the footsteps of the Spanish prime minister, a fan of Larsson, who requested this tour when he visited Sweden on EU business.
Most Swedish writers, including Larsson, fill their books with gruesome crimes – sexual perversion, rape and torture all make an appearance. Their characters and detectives are almost always without exception, tortured souls, and Sweden features as a dark country where dark deeds happen. That’s impossible to fathom since even on this wintry day, the sun is shining, and the view of the city from high over Lake Malaren – over Gamla Stan (the old town, settled in the 1200s), and City Hall, with its three gold crowns – is as sharp as the cold air.
According to author Leif Persson, who is also a criminologist, Swedish crime writers “exaggerate” in their novels. He elaborates, “The level of violent crime in Sweden, as compared to other countries, is very low – we are a peaceful and democratic society. But you don’t get that impression when you read a Swedish crime novel. Sweden is such a peaceful place that most authors feel the need to make their writing more thrilling.”
One pointer to Sweden’s peaceful existence is the absence of any security cordon around the Palace in Gamla Stan. Even though the palace is used only on official occasions and is home to five museums, I’m hard pressed to spot even a solitary guard as I explore the cobbled streets around it. Here I find antique shops, cafes and bars, small art galleries featuring original work and the Sweden Bookshop, where you can buy Swedish authors in the language of your choice.
Blazing a trail
Back on the trail, we’ve reached Mellqvist Kaffeebar, a hangout of Blomkvist in the books and of Larsson in real life. He probably drank coffee, but I sip on a hot chocolate to ward off the cold, looking at all the singletons coming in for their daily fix. On cue, Asa tells us Stockholm is home to the most number of single households after New York.
Our next stop is on Gotgatan, where we stare at the windows above the office of Greenpeace – the location of the Millennium office in the books. I reflect that it’s no surprise that Larsson, himself an activist, chose this location. Another theme that runs through many of Swedish crime novels is ‘social commentary’. The trend began with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, authors of the 10-book Martin Beck series. “We aimed at cataloguing society and writing good books,” explains Sjowall. “We wanted to write realistically about the police and about how society changed and developed during the decade. And through this genre, we thought it would be possible to describe this.”
Now, others are following the same path, most notably Anders Roslund and Borje Hellstrom who describe their books as “50 per fiction and 50 per cent fact.” Hellstrom adds, “We’re trying to describe the consequences of the crime and the way criminals think and behave. We want to make people realise that the perpetrator is also the victim.”
Our final stop is Kvarnen – an old-style beer hall now transformed into a restaurant and bar. After a lunch of cannelloni and meatballs, I realise it’s finally time to find out why Stockholm is the second most-visited city in the Nordic countries. After a short dekko at the National Museum (now featuring Rubens and Van Dyck), and trying to comprehend the Anish Kapoor installation at the Modern Museum (both have great shops), I board a ferry to the Vasa Museum just as the weak winter sun begins to set.
After snapping away at the giant cruise ships, the Vasa comes as a shock. It dates to the 17th century and was found intact. When you’ve stopped craning your neck to take it in, the displays do their best to give you an idea of what life was like aboard on what essentially resembles one of the ships from Pirates of the Caribbean. All in all, the museum is just like Stockholm – a wholly unexpected surprise.
Flights: No direct flights from India. From the airport, you can take a taxi (avoid unregistered ones), the Arlanda Express or Flygbussarna buses. Also pick up free city maps at the airport.
Visa: You will need a Schengen visa. See www.swedenabroad.com/newdelhi for details. Getting around: Even though walking is a good way to get around, buy a Stockholm card which entitles you to free public transportation, free admission to 80 museums and a free guidebook.
Sights: The most popular include Gamla Stan, The Vasa Museum, The Skansen Open-Air Museum, The Royal Palace, Drottningholm Palace, the National Museum and the Modern Art Museum.
Day trips: You can visit the rest of Sweden, or go to Helsinki, Tallinn, Oslo or Copenhagen. Money: Swedish Crown (krona/kronor), abbreviated to SEK. One krona is 6-7 rupees and 1 euro is roughly 9 kroner. Euros are accepted widely, but it’s advisable to carry kroner. Exchange bureaus are at the airport and railway stations.
Food: You can find vegetarian food in restaurants, but that is expensive. Your best cheap options are fast food, kebab and falafel joints, and ready to eat burgers in supermarkets like Hemkopp.The ISKCON restaurant is at Fridhemsgatan 22. Weather: Winter is very cold, with average temperatures ranging around –3 °C. Average temperatures in summer range between 12 and 17 °C. June and July are the wet months. In summer, it stays light almost 24/7, so carry an eye mask to sleep.
Shopping: Best summed up by two brands – H&M and IKEA. The former is everywhere; the world’s largest IKEA is at Kungens Kurva – also home to other shopping centres. Shops open by 10 am and close by 6 pm, except along Hamngatan. Look out for signs like ‘Rea’ (sale) and ‘Rabatt’. (‘100 per cent rabbatt’ means 100 kronor has been knocked off the price.) Websites: http://www.visit-stockholm.com , ww.stockholmtown.com
Swedish crime in india
The Embassy of Sweden in India will host ‘Swedish Crime Fiction – The Renewal And Redefining Of A Literary Genre’ in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore from April 19 to 24.
DELHI: April 19-22. The events at India Habitat Centre will include a lecture on Swedish crime fiction by Hakan Nesser, a crime fiction writing workshop (pre-registration required), a theatrical reading of Stieg Larsson’s and Hakan esser’s books and a screening of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
MUMBAI: April 23-24. Events include a reading at Crossword, Kemps Corner, a workshop on crime fiction and a theatrical book reading.
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by the Embassy of Sweden in New Delhi)