4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)
P. C. Jersild’s After the Flood (1982, trans. 1986), a relentlessly bleak and incisive analysis of humanity’s death drive after a nuclear event, hits harder than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). Possessed by a deceptively powerful prose, Jersild maps out the apocalyptic bodyscapes of this new and dying world with merciless strokes.
P.C. Jersild (1935-), a Swedish physician and author, wrote a handful of novels that can be classified as science fiction. According to SF Encyclopedia, he’s “a central figure in modern Swedish literature, both a favorite among critics and, with some of his novels, a major bestseller.” Until recently, as is typical for many mainstream authors, Jersild tried to distance himself from SF despite writing a range of works that are set in the future. Of these works, unfortunately only three have been translated into English–The Animal Doctor (1973, trans. 1975), A Living Soul (1980, trans. 1988), and After the Flood (1982, trans. 1986).
I highly recommend After the Flood for all fans of mature post-apocalyptic fiction. As a note for the unaware or those who won’t read the rest of the review, this novel contains terrifying scenes of illness, abortion, abuse, sexual violence, etc.
The Geography of This New World
Removed from his nuclear bunker, trafficked, and enslaved after the death of his father, Edvin serves as a “cabin boy” and “pet” to a series of abusive ship captains who ply the thousands of islands off the coast of Sweden (9). Edvin and his shipmates are forced to engage in a series of abusive games–one captain (and ex-priest) reenacts the rituals of confession for sexual arousal and as a way to keep “us divided” (35), another captain forces his new lover to kill the old (26), another periodically abandons Edvin in caves or while standing in shallow water fixing the ship’s propeller (15). And the story picks up when Edvin is abandoned for good on the seemingly deserted southern end of an island. Cut off from the ocean, Edvin has nothing to go back to, his past has been erased (100).
Edvin comes across Henry, an old man who used to be a guard at a youth detention facility on the island, who ekes out an existence growing potatoes and extricating gold teeth from a nearby cemetery (42). As he knows only one way to live, Edvin assumes he’ll be Henry’s lover. But Henry needs someone to plant potatoes and take care of his ailments: “All night he sat at the kitchen table with his forehead against the pot, and he never even tried to piss” (41). Edvin meets Petsamo, an ex-baseball player and doctor, who has free rein over the island due to his indispensable knowledge.
After Petsamo departs, Henry’s “hard, skull-sized bladder” continues to inflict excruciating pain and Edvin makes a devastating choice: “I let the heavy hammer fall [..] between his eyebrows” (59). Edvin sets off to “to become a free man” (62) but is promptly recaptured and abused by a group of male offenders from the beforementioned youth detention facility who’ve created a brutal labor system ruled by a man named Roland. Petsamo rescues Edvin (and a woman who only speaks Finnish) and takes him to the “Rabbit-Covenant,” named due to its underground warren of tunnels, inhabited by aging nuns (77).
Eventually Edvin starts to serve as Petsamo’s apprentice as the doctor journeys to and fro across the apocalyptic wastes. Edvin’s possessed by an urge to survive and vague dreams of trying anew. Petsamo, on the other hand, constantly broods about his own death, “the meaningless of life, the humiliation of being a thinking creature” trapped in an aging body (89). Edvin asks “But what if everything started over?” (91). Petsamo responds: “In the course of a few hundred years the earth would be infested with people again–and then boom, all over again! The worst thing we can do is not to accept that we’re through” (91).
But then Edvin re-encounters the Finn… and she gives him a crucifix “with a Jesus no bigger than a crucified flying ant” (159). And something stirs within in. And they set off–the final steps towards the end?
P. C. Jersild’s medical background provides a disquieting tapestry of post-apocalyptic horror–the decay and ailments of the body. Edvin’s cleft lip, a common birth defect easily remedied by minor surgery, signals the utter loss of medical knowledge. Most are hairless or have “only thin clumps, fine down, or a ring above their ears” (32). Everyone’s skin contains glass splinters caused by the nuclear blasts that “break through and fester” (37) and headlice and crabs (44). Most are bloated and filled with sores, others “rickety and dry as sticks” (28).
The slow entropic transformation of the body into fragments and foul smelling liquids infects even dreams: “at night I dream about a pack of dogs no bigger than mice […]. While I’m in my deepest sleep, they slip into my asshole and crawl up my intestines, eating their way along. They build a lair inside me and bring up litter after litter” (97). There’s the sense that humanity is but a rash, it itches, it infects, it creeps, it burns, it scars, it peters out.
Constructing Knowledge in the Wasteland
In a world without access to education, the handful of survivors hold their knowledge tight. Knowledge becomes the currency of survival. It is not willfully shared. Edvin ruminates on the nature of the world whose movements he has not been taught to understand. He wonders “what’s in [people] that makes them alive” (35). After witnessing an abortion, he buries the fetus and attempts to make connections: “I guess we all looked like baby birds at one time or another” (122). His world is one inhabited by the the ghosts of the dead–ghosts that go on “barking like a seal on quiet nights for years afterwards” (26) or escape from dead bodies unless they are loaded down “with heavy rocks” to prevent the “ghost from flying around and haunting people at night” (29). In other instances, Edvin is unable to differentiate between the contents of myth and common technology of the past world: “If you can get a whole orchestra into the grooves of a record, why shouldn’t you be able to store screams in a ton of glass?” (150).
As few women survive and those who do avoid the dangers of the sea, the geography of the female body and its functions take on mythical qualities: “I’ve heard a thousand stories. They’re not like the rest of us; they have more than one hole in their ass” (76). Edvin, surrounded by the homosocial world of the sea, believes the tales of women who “can’t take the ocean,” “cast spells on you,” and who act like “living calendars” as “through a hole in their bodies–unclear just where—they squirt out a cup of dirty blood at regular intervals” (28).
In the relentless finality of it all, Edvin’s attempts to construct and reconnect the threads of the world are for not. Like Halvar in his radio tower who subsists on memories of past usefulness (134), the nuns in the Rabbit-Covent who huddle around the “skinny, emancipated Jesus” (79), and Petsamo who views his medical talents simply as a ticket for survival, these are final movements–the rigor mortis of the human race.
After the Flood‘s prose can be downright gorgeous. Edvin, knowing he might be abandoned by his captain, ruminates: “I don’t like rowing; the past trails behind you like a long piece of string” (10). There’s a relentless realism (ailments, the bleak landscape, the violence) and a deliberate revealing of Edvin’s memories.
I suspect the character of Edvin, formed by the trauma and abuse he’s experienced and the nature of the world he lives in, will not appeal to all readers. He is a product of his world. He resorts to violence when needed. He tries to love. He tries to care for those around him. But in the final danse macabre as humans can no longer procreate and the decay sets in, Edvin’s observations cut to the heart of things: “Dreams, fantasies… I’m just fooling myself!” (64).
My good run with Scandinavian science fiction continues! After the Flood joins Knut Faldbakken’s Twilight Country (1974, trans. 1993), Sven Holm’s Termush (1967, trans. 1969) and Anders Bodelsen’s Freezing Down (1969, trans. 1971) among my favorite reads of the last few years.
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