There’s a slight tension in the way Wretchedness revels in its descriptions of drug use, violence and casual racism while being suspicious of the cultural appropriations associated with certain kinds of gritty literary fiction. One character, a graffiti artist named Soot, laments the way those who write about the wretched lives of his peers often end up stealing their stories. Writers and academics come for “the latest hot story, juicy tale, personal, private, honest and raw — but simply and straightforwardly told”, and “in return the teller gets to stroke their soft clothing, to sniff the mimosa and the hyacinth and the lily of the valley they keep in their editors’ offices, which those silent cleaners, our mums and dads, have wiped clean with their aching bodies”. Is it a betrayal to make art out of broken, marginalised lives? It depends how you go about it, and on the whole Wretchedness is a sensitive and compelling attempt.
This tension between polyphony and cacophony is exhilarating, if somewhat exhausting, and one of the many fine qualities of Nichola Smalley’s heroic translation is that it preserves this polyglot restlessness. For these reasons this furious novel’s brevity is deceptive; getting through it requires stamina, but our brief stay in the cellist’s mind is powerfully, nightmarishly unforgettable.
Tichý would have been 18 in the mid-90s, and for British readers, parts of Wretchedness may recall the Trainspotting-fuelled boom in druggy vernacular fiction of that era, with a sense of nostalgia heightened by passing references to, say, drum’n’bass label Metalheadz, or Mary Anne Hobbs’s Radio 1 show Breezeblock. Sharper passages about the experience of social deprivation might land most pointedly in Sweden: as the narrator remembers growing up in a multi-ethnic suburb maligned as “a human rubbish dump”, in the words of one bitterly recalled headline, it’s clearly part of the book’s project to disrupt perceptions of the country as a liberal utopia... the novel builds to an unexpectedly heart-stopping (and head-scratching) finale, with a frame-breaking time-slip that invites us to reconsider everything we’ve just read as a stylistically radical expression of survivor’s guilt.
The text is rich in youth slang, and Nichola Smalley’s translation from Swedish is sensitive to its “bloodily dark poetry”. One youngster riffs on how “he hated those fuckin gangsta fuckers … that whole thug style … what even is that, ey hey yo waddup, man’s glidin in the whip”. “Choose your battles, bro,” another says.
The narrative flows fast, urging the reader to keep up; yet most readers will never be able to fully understand the characters’ plight. For them, the mantra “die young” acquires another meaning: there is no choice, “either because you stay who you are … or because you’ll become a different person”. The book ends abruptly, as an avant-garde piece of music might, but the vibrations continue to fill the air.
Tichý’s subjects are the down-and-outs of his home city of Malmö, the addicts, the destitute, the prostitutes, the homeless, the children in care. Their voices join together in one mass polyphonic testimony that gives a searing depiction of the marginalised in one of the world’s most progressive societies. It makes for a fascinating read, the real-life details of which further bolster the fiction. Who knew, for example, that about 60,000 people in Sweden, most of them women, were sterilised under a state-approved racial-purity programme that continued until 1976?
The unspooling story is brutal, a dead-end score of drugs, violence and unbearable sadness, but there’s also a damaged beauty to the words and the world, where a stolen radio can offer an escape route from the catastrophes of poverty-stricken life.