Friday, July 13, 2012

I am obsessed, fantasy and real world vigilantes - Part I

Over the past three weeks, I have been in a different world, the world of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in faraway Sweden. I first encountered them when I started reading the third book in the Millennium trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest".
This book was purchased on my iPad one or two years ago but I hadn't gotten past a few pages before now. I had a lot of free time so I delved into it because I needed something fast paced and suspenseful. It sucked me in like quicksand!
Before I knew it,  I was torturing my retinas, trying to read faster and tried telling myself that I would put it away at a certain time of day but those promises to self often came to naught as I got more and more entwined in the author, Stieg Larsson's fantasy world.

Here is Stieg Larsson's site on the Literary Magazine of Swedish books and writers where you'll find lots of discussion forums and news about the author. Some people have criticized the quality of writing in the books on the site and there are even some controversial speculations that he did not write those books all by himself as mentioned in this New Yorker article.
I did observe that the style of writing was more in line with a daily conversational tone. There are very few words that one needs to look up in the dictionary if one's vocabulary is average, and swear words are peppered throughout the text.

Guess what, I don't care. Every author has his/her own style and I appreciate it.

There are authors whose prose is flowery and packed dense with words that an average person cannot make sense of without a dictionary. Take Thomas Hardy's "The Woodlanders" as an example. A moving, simple love triangle in English that is decorated with the English language.
Then there are novels densely populated with characters such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" that spans generations.
These are not novels that one can breeze through but that does not mean that they are not enjoyable or mesmerizing. Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" is another epic that I plodded through but it was well worth the effort.

Stieg Larsson's books may not contain poetic prose but they have well-developed characterizations and brilliant, plausible, tight plots told in an intensely suspenseful manner.

The Millennium trilogy consisting of the books with their English translation titles are:

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The first one has recently been filmed and released in Hollywood and there are original Swedish film versions of all the three books. I have to yet watch the Swedish movies though I did see the Hollywood one. I thought that the Hollywood movie was quite true to the novel down to some of the dialogues with one key difference (that would be a spoiler). However, I am not sure how much a viewer who has not read the book would be able to grasp of the characters and plot.
The casting, in my opinion, was excellent.

There are articles about the popularity of these books such as this interesting one in the New Yorker magazine (same as the one quoted above). While all the reasons given could very well be true, I personally feel that one reason stacks up above everything else. Why are superheroes such as Superman, Spiderman and movies such as The Dark Knight so popular? Why are there legions of fans for Lara Croft or Xena, the Warrior Princess or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer? We, the public, seem to have an unending thirst for superheroes, detectives and even rescue machines such as the one in the popular Japanese TV series, Giant Robot.

Basically, we want the bad guys whooped, given a dose of their own medicine and even done away with for good. That's the reason Bollywood and regional films such as Tamil cinema in India can get away with letting their human heroes thrash a pack of villains even if they do not have any supernatural, science-fiction-conferred abilities such as those conferred upon Superman or Spiderman. As one of my friends would say, just suspend all logic and watch.
We may rave and rant about letting the law take its own course and denounce harsh punishments such as those enshrined in Sharia law but will gleefully watch Rajnikanth, that South Indian superhero that defies all laws of physics and aging in biology, bash up an army of hooligans with a single gesture.

There are films in India such as the Tamil "Indian" remade in Hindi as "Hindustani" where a former freedom fighter of the British Raj quietly sends corrupt Indian officials to the Great Unknown. The role was brilliantly essayed by the versatile thespian of South Indian cinema, Kamal Haasan and the audience faithfully added to the box office earnings.

The genius of Steig Larsson's books is that he has concocted a heroine who possesses kick-ass fighting skills that would be the envy of Jackie Chan, brains that would have sent NASA, the CIA, Google and Apple to come knocking at her door, the riveting personality and attire of a punk rock rebel and a horrible, frightful past that could very well last an entire season of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit".  Lisbeth Salander makes the phrase "damsel-in-distress" sound like an antiquated fairy tale.

FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, played by the gorgeous Gillian Anderson, in the television series of the 90s and early 00s, "The X-Files" was another female character whom I loved like millions of fans for her brains and investigative abilities, not to mention a quiet beauty that did not require any shedding of clothes to get noticed.
However, Scully as an agent of law and order, mostly played by the rule book. Lisbeth Salander would certainly equal Scully in her investigative abilities but doesn't even care if the rule book exists. Laws, common social niceties and conventions are not among her favorite things. She circumvents rules with impunity and yet maintains moral standards, somewhat along the lines of Robin Hood and Spiderman. She is no cute, popular  mainstream amateur detective like the pretty Nancy Drew.

Her unlikely partner in the adventures is the celebrity investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist of the magazine, Millennium,  hence probably the name "Millennium trilogy" for the series.

Together, they send serial killers and gangsters scampering for their lives. Lisbeth also has to save her own future. I won't tell you more, just read the books.

I may not agree with Salander's means or methods, but I still felt happy as she came out on top each time.

There was a New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof when some women in India took the law into their own hands in bashing up a serial rapist. I am sorry I could not find a free link to post. One has to be a subscriber to access this archived article but you can find references to it online. I found one of them here on a blog, Sepia Mutiny

What if the law fails miserably at protecting innocent people again and again? Would there be real life versions of Lisbeth Salander? I can already think of one case. Phoolan Devi, also known as the Bandit Queen and immortalized in Shekhar Kapur's film of the same name, was the victim of many injustices and abuse both as a child and an adult. She became an icon among the lawless and was later accepted into the mainstream as she surrendered to the authorities and subsequently entered politics. 

I feel that the public secretly loves vigilantes, at least some of them. If you asked someone what they thought of the electric chair for execution or the hanging method, they would probably say they are inhuman. However, the same person may have no qualms seeing a serial killer die a horrible death on screen. I am not generalizing, just saying that at least a few of us share this dichotomy of opinions.

All I know is that I was transported to a different world, just like my childhood days spent reading Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" and "Secret Seven" series. Hope you all enjoy Stieg Larsson's books, too.

I was saddened to learn that the author was dead even before the trilogy was published so there will be no more books from him. I was further impressed when I found that Stieg Larsson was a fearless campaigner against racism, sexism, fascism and exploitation. Read these touching interviews with his longtime partner, Eva Gabrielsson, in Vanity Fair and this interview with his father and brother in The New York Times
May his soul rest in peace!