by Jerome Grapel…….
(This is an essay I wrote about 4 years ago. I had no intention of posting it at this time until I read Martha Huggins’ excellent article on white collar crime in this very publication. Although it lacks the statistical minutia and professional expertise Dr. Huggins always enlightens us with, as a layman’s compliment to her work it might still serve a purpose).
The 2 people named in the title of this essay have written a good deal of the literary output that has placated my reading addiction for much of the last year. I group them together because they are both in the vanguard in understanding who the true villains are in contemporary capitalist society, something made even more laudable because this segment of our culture has traditionally been treated as heroes. I’m referring to the most powerful financiers and investors at the tip of the economic pyramid, the ones who control trillions of dollar-euros, the ones who’ve been romanticized as the valiant brain power behind the creation of the wealth that benefits us all — excuse me while I go throw up. With the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing hardship it continues to cause for millions, a lot more people are beginning to get it (everyone but the Tea Party-Libertarians), but Larsson and Silva saw it long ago and have eloquently used the poetry of their novels to explain it more clearly. I will quote from their work later in this essay.
I’ll begin with Stieg Larsson. Larsson was a Swede just beginning to become an international rock star of contemporary fiction when his sudden death tragically put an end to it all at the age of 51. The heart attack responsible for his untimely demise conjured up, at least for me, images of the most important characters in his novels, people who smoked incessantly, consumed punch bowl amounts of coffee, drank without shame, and nourished themselves with a tawdry menu of fast food and industrial comestibles that only exceptions to the rule could live long lives on. It is not difficult to believe that Mikael Blomkvist, the investigative journalist who is the protagonist-hero throughout 2500 pages of Larsson’s 3 part “Millennium” series, is the alter-ego of the author. In spite of his poor culinary habits, Blomkvist will live forever in the pages of his creator, but, so sadly, Larsson has written his last word at a moment when he was becoming the Beatles.
“Too fast to live, too young to die, bye, bye”.
I came upon the first volume of the Millennium series in a book store on my beloved island in the Roman Sea. At the time, I’d be returning from Spain in 2 days and knew my scheduled hip replacement would have me convalescing for months to come. The subject matter, coupled with a length of more than 800 pages, seemed a good choice for my rehabilitation. Bingo! I’ve already read the second volume and have the third and last sitting in my home while I read other stuff.
Larsson’s literary talent, like the eating habits of his characters, cannot be considered “haute cuisine”. His books have tinges of the average Hollywood thriller that tend to cheapen them. There is a level of violence and sexual titillation that could seem excessive, but, unlike the average Hollywood thriller, the educational value of his novels cancel out any negative view in the finally tally of worth. Eight hundred pages of literature can provide a better forum for enlightenment than a two and a half hour movie, that is, if it can keep one’s interest. With regard to Stieg Larsson, keeping one’s interest is not an issue.
The sample of Larsson’s writing I shall soon quote comes from the first volume of the Millennium series. As mentioned above, Mikael Blomkvist is the hero of the work. He publishes a modest monthly magazine called “Millennium”, whose primary goal is to delve into the upper reaches of the financial system and see what makes it tick. Quite frequently, the fraudulent, criminal aspects of its operations become a major part of what Millennium tries to uncover. In fact, Blomkvist lives at the edge of the cliff with his assertions as the powerful forces he is at war with try to ruin him.
One of the points Larsson makes in this book is just how little journalism is devoted to such practices. He compares it to the political arena, where a whole army of journalists work tirelessly to bring down any politician who has failed to pick up after his dog. He wonders why the same scrutiny is not given to the financial sector, in fact, he wonders why those writing about the business community seem to exist only to glorify it. This is the void Blomkvist is trying to fill in Larsson’s novels and he becomes somewhat of a pariah in the journalism community for it.
The whole first book in the Millennium series revolves around Blomkvist’s attempts to bring down a Swedish businessman who has somehow amassed an octopus-like empire valued in the hundreds of billions. It is relevant to note that Stieg Larsson swims like a dolphin in the digital age technology that is reshaping not only contemporary society, but human beings themselves. His characters are beyond cutting edge in this new world of I-phones, Blackberries, “notebooks”, mega-bytes, “hackers” and such, and Blomkvist uses a full arsenal of these devices in tracking his prey. He knows this respected, idolized businessman is a fraud. He knows he’s stolen gigantic amounts of public money as loans for none existent enterprises. He knows his wealth is vapor. He knows he’s dealt with such enterprises as the Russian Mafia and the Colombian drug cartels. He knows, he knows, and Blomkvist wants his ass.
He eventually gets him. (This knowledge in no way prejudices a work that is so much more than that).
By exposing the fraud of this huge financial empire, the Swedish Stock Exchange is adversely affected. As a result, a reporter asks Blomkvist if he feels any guilt for having caused such a thing, even insinuating he could be considered a traitor. Blomkvist’s answer is not simply the correct response but an historical analysis of a myth whose forthright verbalization helps us all understand a situation we’ve perhaps suspected in our guts but could not explain to ourselves. It wouldn’t surprise me if Larsson wrote this whole novel just so he could say it. Blomkvist says (I remind the reader what follows is my English translation of the Spanish version of a work written in Swedish, but I’ll guarantee very little is lost in the conversions):
“You have to distinguish one from the other: the Swedish economy and the Swedish Stock Market. The Swedish economy is made up of the sum of all its services and goods produced in the country day after day — Ericsson telephones, Volvo cars, Scan poultry, and all the transport services from Kiruna to Skovde. That is the Swedish economy, and it is just as strong today as a week ago. The Stock Market is completely different. There is no economy worth anything there. Pure fantasy; from one hour to the next it is decided if this company or that in Germany is worth who knows how many billions. It has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the Swedish economy. (—) It only means a mob of speculators are shifting their stock portfolios from Swedish companies to German ones. They are the true financial rats (—) the true traitors and any reporter with a bit of courage should put them in evidence and identify the country’s true traitors”.
Camouflaged in the underbrush of this statement is the belief that our system has been rewarding unconstructive work with huge sums of money. The economy is skewered, perverted. Such “work” does not deserve the wealth we attribute to it. This is a cancerous tumor eating away at the health of society.
Lorenzo Silva, though not the international rock star Stieg Larsson has become posthumously, is one of Spain’s successful writers. Like Larsson, he is most famous for a series of novels with a central character, a veteran police detective in Madrid named Bevilacqua, but better known as “Vila”. The book I will quote from is called “La Estrategia del Aqua” (The Strategy of Water) and I picked it up in the same bookstore I found my first Stieg Larsson. While perusing its cover publicity, I slowly began to realize I’d already read one of the Bevilacqua series. With the memory of its high quality coming back to me, its purchase was made quite easy. Silva’s writing is “haute cuisine”. The lyrical qualities of his rhythmic prose come as naturally to him as Willie Mays playing baseball. If Larsson plays a good rock guitar, Silva is a master in the tradition of Segovia and Casals.
Unlike the flamboyant Blomkvist, whose ambition operates in the upper reaches of fame, wealth and power; who makes a name for himself pursuing the criminality and subterfuges in the halls of influence and domination; who can’t seem to find a bed without a woman in it, Vila is a humble public servant doing his job the best he can in a world that just won’t behave. He’s a grey man, middle aged, divorced, a bit of a misanthrope, plying his craft in the anonymity of the back streets of urban crime. Vila is more the weeds and bushes than the attention grabbing flower, but underneath this unassuming façade of the average is a shrewd observer of the human condition with an intellect generally not associated with a policeman.
In the novel “La Estrategia del Aqua”, Vila finds himself dealing with the grease ball reality of thugs and petty criminals in the underworld of street trafficking. Having been ascended from time to time during his career in law enforcement, this is a venue he had not been in for quite some time and he seeks the help of a colleague whose specialty is just this venue. During their conversation, Vila wonders why there has been such an upswing in violence in the last few years. The response is swift and direct, even condescending, his colleague attributing it to the global financial crisis which has left the underworld competing for less business. He puts it like this: “It is very simple, I’ve already told you. The crisis. Or are you one of those who think the banks suffer the crisis? The banks are well fortified, that’s why they are what they are and they have many places to hold onto, and the best ones are directly stuck into the balls of those who supposedly govern us”. He then finishes with his dart in the bulls eye: “The crisis strikes at people, not banks”.
But Silva, speaking through the subtle intelligence of his wonderful Bevilacqua creation, can be even more provocative in denigrating the world of banks and high finance. A few pages before that quoted above, Vila found himself conversing with his partner, a female underling with less experience but an equal amount of intelligence. It was becoming more obvious the case they were working on was headed into this sordid world of drugs and violence, a turn of events Vila found repugnant. He asks his partner,
“You know what disgusts me about these people”?
“Their vulgarity. Deep down, there is little difference between a narco and a banker. They are 2 beings whose life and conduct revolve around a single pulsation — greed. In order to make sure the flow of money never stops, when there is any kind of risk the banker forecloses on a mortgage, or bribes a politician financing his career or any of his other whims. The narco, if he can, also greases the politician, the police, or whoever he has at hand, but he can’t foreclose on a mortgage so he busts legs, rips open stomachs or blows somebody’s head off. There is nothing — not in the legal violence of the banker nor the illegal violence of the Mafioso — of the noble and natural impulses of an animal biting into or goring the hide of another. It is only the fucking money and the web of miserable passions knitted around it. To solve a crime in this context is about as fascinating and emotional as the routine audit of a bank account”.
With the current unrest on Wall Street and around the world, an unrest that is finally — finally! — zeroing in on the true villains of contemporary culture, both Larsson and Silva become the oracles of our day. I highly recommend them both.