Critical Context

Sigismund is the fourth in a series of five loosely connected novels. Although each of the novels in the series is complete in itself, they share a common theme: the importance of the individual and the necessity for self-definition. As Gustafsson noted in an interview conducted by one of his English translators: “More and more people are realizing that the meaning or sense of their lives is the one they have to give to themselves.” All of his characters are engaged in this struggle, which provides the only possibility for freedom.

En biodlares dod (1978; The Death of a Beekeeper, 1981), the only other work in Gustafsson’s series that has been translated into English, asserts the significance of the individual, even over a hypothetical god. The protagonist declares, “if there is a god, then it is the task of the human being to be his negation.” Like Sigismund, the novel expresses an optimistic belief in the human power to persevere and repeats the refrain that runs through all the novels: “We begin again. We never give up.”

Most of Gustafsson’s work has not been translated into English. Yet he is well-known in Sweden and Germany as a poet, dramatist, and literary critic, as well as a novelist. Sigismund is an excellent example, in both structure and theme, of the postmodern novel. Rooted in the tradition of Laurence Sterne and Miguel de Cervantes, as the epigraph from Don Quixote of the Mancha (1605, 1615) makes clear, the novel self-consciously plays with the conventional rules of fiction. The work of other, contemporary, writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, John Barth, and John Fowles, provides a useful context for Gustafsson’s achievements. He asks the timeless questions that place his novel with the best of this genre in world literature.