Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Stieg Larsson trained Marxist guerrillas in Eritrea

By Keith Richmond
October 12th, 2010

Stieg Larsson, the anti-fascist journalist who became a bestselling author – and worldwide publishing phenomenon – with the posthumous success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, spent a year in the horn of Africa with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a Marxist group fighting for independence from Ethiopia, training a company of female guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers.

This dramatic revelation comes in a new book called Afterword, subtitled Stieg Larsson: Four Essays and an Exchange of e-mails, accompanying his three Lisbeth Salander novels – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – in a lavish new cloth-bound boxed set from his British publishers MacLehose.

That Larsson was a left-wing activist is well known. He worked tirelessly all his life in the fight against fascism in northern Europe, and a cursory reading of his books would make his political leanings clear. But most critics, commentators and readers have assumed he was soft left in a typically Swedish sort of way. No one knew, at least here in Britain, that he was a radical and revolutionary who, at one point, joined the armed struggle in Africa.

It was an article here in Tribune in October last year which first revealed that Karl Stig-Erland Larsson was a young activist with the Communist Workers League and edited the Trotskyist journal Fjärde Internationalen before joining the news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå. He helped start Stop the Racism in the 1980s and, after eight people were killed by neo-Nazis in 1995, the Expofoundation, dedicated to exposing fascists in Scandinavia. He became editor-in-chief of Expo in 1999 and contributed for many years to Searchlight here in Britain. Shortly before he died from a sudden heart attack in 2004 at the age of 50 – there were suggestions that he was murdered by the extreme right; more likely it was the result of stress, overwork and the 60 hand-rolled cigarettes he smoked each day – he finished the Millennium trilogy which would make him famous.

Noomi Rapace portrays Lisbeth Salander in
“The Girl Who Played With Fire,” based on
the second of Stieg Larsson’s novels
Now John-Henri Holmberg, a close friend for 30 years who shared Larsson’s love o­f­ science fiction, has spilled the beans on his political past. Holmberg explains how, in 1968, at the age of 14, Larsson joined “the countrywide anti-Vietnam War protest organization, where at 18 he met fellow student Eva Gabrielsson, who became his life partner. In Umeå Stieg had also become active in the Trotskyite Communist Workers League and wrote regularly for their magazine Internationalen. Why the very small Trotskyite group? Stieg was an individualist. His family background was more traditionally leftist. His maternal grandfather, with whom Stieg grew up, was an old school Communist devoted to the Soviet Union, while Stieg’s parents belonged to the ruling Social Democrat party in Sweden.

“Stieg rejected both these alternatives – he viewed the USSR as a repressive totalitarian dictatorship and the Social Democrats as unprincipled and closely allied with capitalist interests. The Trotskyites, perhaps the most romantically utopian of any of the communist groups, were less intolerant in their cultural views than others, which generally viewed only socialist realism as acceptable and heaped scorn on both science fiction
and crime fiction. They also, as had Trotsky himself, stood by the dream of an egalitarian anarchist and borderless world as the final goal, and this certainly spoke to Stieg’s own individualism as well as imagination. During his military service at the infantry regiment in Umeå, in 1975 and 1976, Stieg was one of those smuggling the underground Trotskyite magazine Röd Soldat [Red Soldier] into the barracks.

“1977 was a dramatic year. Stieg spent part of it in Eritrea, where he had contacts in the Marxist EPLF liberation movement and helped to train a company of women guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers. But he also contracted a kidney inflammation and was forced to leave the country.”

EPLF banner
 This contrasts markedly with an email, also published in Afterword, from Larsson to Eva Gedin, his editor at the Swedish publishing house Norstedts. When she asked him for biographical material, for the book jacket and to help sell the foreign rights to his books, he replied: “Hmm, my biography… I started researching right-wing extremism in the 1970s, and I suppose I have gone on doing that for more than 30 years. Since the early 1980s I have been the Sweden correspondent for the English journal Searchlight, which is the world’s biggest and most prestigious anti-racist journal, and I was one of the founders of Expo in 1995. I have been working full time for Expo since 1999. I have written books including Extremhögern [The Extreme Right] with Anna-Lena Lodenius; Sverigedemokraterna: Den Nationella Rörelsen [Sweden Democrats: The Nationalist Movement] with Mikael Ekman; and Överleva Deadline: Handbok för Mordhotade Journalister [Surviving the Deadlines: A Handbook for Threatened Journalists] for the National Union of Journalists. Perhaps it would be easier simply to say I worked for TT for 20 years. Anything else? I don’t really know.” When she pressed him he reluctantly replied: “Living with a partner. No children. Grew up in Norsjö and Umeå. Living in Stockholm since 1977.”

But, in an interesting aside, writing to Eva about the first chapter of his second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, which opens with Lisbeth Salander in Grenada, he admits: “I have been thinking a bit about the introduction and the tornado that devastated Grenada. We have resurrected the Grenada Committee here in Sweden as a result of the hurricane, so I will be able to consult the Consul. I was involved in the revolution in Grenada in the 1980s, and was a good friend of the murdered Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. But that’s another story.”

Bishop, head of the Marxist New Jewel Movement, became Prime Minister of the People’s Revolutionary Government when he deposed Sir Eric Gairy in 1979. Bishop forged close links with Cuba and signed an arms deal with the Soviet Union in 1982. A year later, on October 19 1983, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and General Hudson Austin put him under house arrest. Demonstrators in the capital, St George’s, managed to free Bishop but soldiers stormed Fort Rupert, lined him and several of his supporters up against a wall, and shot them dead. Six days later 6,000 US marines invaded the island on the orders of President Ronald Reagan – an action which provoked a storm of international criticism.

Holmberg says Larsson was tolerant of other people’s views “and could even regard his own choice of affiliation with humour. Stieg was a card-carrying Trotskyite, I an individualist libertarian. I asked him if he could define, very simply, what he felt made his particular group different from all the then many other communist groups. ‘I think the big difference,’ he said, ‘is that when all the others are out fighting you right-wingers in the streets, we are the ones who will still be sitting in our basement, trying to decide whether this is really the right historical moment’.”

Although Afterword is only 85 pages long, there is much to fascinate anyone who has read and enjoyed the Millennium trilogy. Larsson’s preferred title for both the first book and the series was Men Who Hate Women but publishers thought that would kill the books stone dead. According to his typescripts, Larsson wanted the second book to be called The Witch Who Dreamt of a Can of Petrol and Matches and the third The Exploding Castle in the Air, a reference to Sweden’s welfare state. Holmberg writes: “When eventually the books were published Stieg was dead and the titles had been changed. The series became, not very aptly, Millennium [the name of the investigative magazine for which Larsson’s alter ego, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, works]. At least in Swedish Stieg’s series title was kept as the subtitle for the first volume; in the English translation it was thrown out altogether and the book was called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I suspect that he would have objected in no uncertain terms.”

The Millennium Trilogy: Boxed Set by Stieg Larsson
MacLehose Press, £69.99

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