The Independent 14 May 2001
Northern light on a world at war
Sven Lindqvist travels far and wide to disinter Europe's dark secrets. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him in Stockholm
Sven Lindqvist declared his credo 30 years ago: "If a book is to be a weapon, it must have a sharp edge." He was introducing a book that confronted tyrannical landowners in Latin America with their excesses, much as General Pinochet is finally being made to face his.
So far, so honourable; but it is the way that the edge gains its sharpness that makes Lindqvist's voice distinctive. The key is that his own experiences form part of his meticulously observed work, "just as much as my own love would do if I were writing a love story".
In his new book, A History of Bombing (translated by Linda Haverty Rugg; Granta, £14.99), Lindqvist has used his childhood nightmares to write a largely 20th-century horror story. His presence also looms in the way that, throughout this idiosyncratic work, he conjures the blasted earth and wretched screams produced by repugnant fantasies and genocidal policies.
It's a book about a kind of global lottery in which all of us are players, sponsors and losers. Lindqvist calls all the big numbers: the thousands of degrees centigrade reached on the streets of Dresden and Hiroshima, the million Hiroshimas in the world's nuclear store. He details everything from the first bomb made in 12th-century China, filled with porcelain shards, to the number of times we can blow ourselves up today. It sounds numbingly familiar, but this book will make you burn anew.
In Desert Divers, Lindqvist announced his indebtedness to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who taught him to demand presence - as well as seriousness and excitement - from a writer. That quality, and my inability to reconcile the desert romancer of that book with its author photo, made me want to visit him in Sweden. As I approached his grand-looking building in Stockholm, and despite all the confiding anecdotes about family, dreams and fears, I had no idea whom I would find there.
His image suggests a man soft of speech; somewhat earnest, tall and stooping. But the man in Sven Lindqvist's apartment looks like a stocky, stubbly, Left-Bank Donald Pleasance, minus the leery stare. He hands me fluffy slippers with muscular confidence, guides me in and, with a practised charm, begins to show me the trophies of "a traveller's life".
As I slide across gleaming wooden floors between palatial bookshelves, nodding at art from Australia and West Africa, my bewilderment turns to relief. Although something of his picture's earnestness survives as a flavour in his books, it is dominated by someone more vigorous, incisive and contradictory. It's easy to imagine the man before me searching out a gym in the middle of the Sahara. Yet this is the elegant apartment of someone once obsessed with Andre Gide and whom more recently wrote of an elemental need to escape his atrophied home life, quoting Isabelle Eberhardt's line: "The act of departure is the bravest and most beautiful of all."
Lindqvist suggests we do our talking in a bar, and we walk to the Gondolen, one of the city's landmarks. It's a touristy cousin of The Ivy on giant stilts and offers astonishing views of Stockholm, which glitters across a clutch of islands. Lindqvist is a rigorously self-aware travel-writer, yet he carries his Swedishness with him as he builds snowy landscapes from Saharan sand.
He is well known in Sweden, having published 30 books. Accosted in the street, he listens patiently and then tells me how much he enjoys having a responsive audience. When the man returns a fourth time, Lindqvist finally becomes curt and flicks me a mischievous grin. In his brilliantly intimate account of Europe's genocidal approach to Africa, Exterminate All the Brutes, he describes the book as "the story of a man travelling ... through the Sahara desert and ... the history of the concept of extermination". I recalled that highly specific location as we negotiated his densely familiar neighbourhood. It struck me that Sweden is the capital of Sven Lindqvist - an insider who ventures out.
It was this very homeliness that he fled to write Desert Divers. He was living in a house bought from his parents, when he found that "as long as I remained in my childhood home, I could remember nothing about my childhood. It seemed to have been erased." So what happened?
"Well. I had a divorce. Erm... I went to the Sahara and this new erm... period started." Lindqvist's discomfort about the subject in person repeats the elegant ellipses in Desert Divers. Eventually, I volunteer that his rediscovery of a childhood dream of Saharan travel seemed to free him to write again, and to explore his own silent expanses. He gives a good-humoured bark. "It sounds reasonable."
He's more forthcoming about the genesis of his books, and the way that one project leads to another. That happened with Desert Divers. "I was well into Exterminate All the Brutes before I discovered... no! This is a new book." It happened again, and he wrote a history of anti-racists, published in the US as The Skull Measurer's Mistake (1995). "I read a lot of very racist future tales," he says, "and I noticed that bombing was the favourite means of doing away with all of these 'doomed races'." His research into international law revealed that non-Europeans were not signatories to, nor covered by, the colonisers' treaties. "I think that is where the concept of total war was created," he adds, rehearsing the new book's thesis. "Europeans returned from genocidal blitzing of colonial subjects and applied the same techniques and thinking to one another."
So, while the British obliterated German cities, the Germans treated the Poles and Russians "as colonial people that should be eradicated, as they were not useful". Lindqvist makes a convincing case for this in the book, before a more contentious claim that the Holocaust was a logical extension of genocidal imperialism, with its loopy notions of racial inferiority. The argument seems forced to me, though it's the kind of iconoclasm that so enlivens Lindqvist's moral journeys.
The wonder of these books is their very natural fragmentary form. Lindqvist describes himself as "a non-fiction writer that uses many of the stylistic methods of fiction". A History of Bombing is made up of 23 separate beginnings, whose pathways circle back on themselves, accumulating into a history that feels uniquely fresh. He is a master of telling details, brilliantly conjuring his childhood fear at seeing the uncanny resemblance between the Swedish words for "bombers" and "children".
Lindqvist did national service as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and articulates this principle well. However, I wanted to know whether the passionate commitment that sharpens his literary weapons would ever extend to action. In Srebrenica, for instance? He said: "I could of course imagine such... but I'm not sure I could take part in it."
Lindqvist's angle of approach revives life-and-death questions. Ironically, the ethical insistence in his affecting story of bombing reminded me why I could "take part in it". He deserves respect for facing these dark truths and their gloomy conclusions, as well as for allowing some light to escape. "The future," he once wrote, "is our own work." So the responsibility - or the credit- for it is quite clear.
Sven Lindqvist, a biography
Sven Lindqvist was born in Stockholm in 1932. The son of teachers, he gained degrees in Literature and Chinese as well as a Doctorate from Stockholm University. While pursuing his studies in Peking, he became Swedish cultural attache and wrote his first book China in Crisis . Extensive travel in Latin America produced further International successes in The Shadow  and Land and Power in South America . In Sweden Lindqvist is also known for his campaigning journalism, Dig Where You Stand  and two revelatory memoirs about male sexuality. A divorce at the end of the 1980s followed by travel in the Sahara desert spored a series of acclaimed books, including Exterminate all the Brutes  and Desert Divers . He has 2 children from his marriage to the writer Cecilia Lindqvist and lives in Stockholm with his second wife, Agneta Stark, Professor of Gender and Economic Change at Linkšpings University.
First published in The Independent © The Author © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd. 2000.