Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In addition to being a novelist, Sven Delblanc teaches comparative literature at the University of Uppsala. Speranza reflects that academic career. As in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), and Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), the tale’s protagonist is deluded by assumptions about human goodness and the ideals of civilization that subsequently collapse under the weight of grim experience. A second, not entirely unrelated motif, presented through Abbe Marcello, derives from Fyodor Dostoevski: As in the Grand Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov (1912), a cleric’s argument that humankind will gladly surrender its freedom to the absolutism of the Church in exchange for bread and order strikes at a fundamental philosophical issue.

These allusions indicate something beyond a literary collage drawn from the tradition of Western fiction, however. Arguably to a greater extent than that of any other Western European country, Sweden’s recent history has been shaped by a philosophical materialism that preaches the inevitability of social progress as the result of rational analysis. If that creed has helped produce a paragon of social and economic democracy, it has also fostered what the Swedes themselves call a “blue-eyed” intellectual naivete. As a child of the Renaissance who believes in human perfectibility, Delblanc’s diarist reflects modern Europe’s secular faith, but the more particular image indicated by this metaphoric figure is the radical young Swede who, ever since the Vietnam War, has self-righteously condemned his elders and all political views based on perceptions of human nature that are less romantic than his own. In addition to reminding his countrymen of their pride in their nation’s imperialistic past, Delblanc exposes the racial and class prejudice on the underside of Sweden’s liberal dogma. The author’s harshest attack on his audience’s self-deception, however, strikes at the foundations of human behavior. Beneath noble Mignon’s lofty assertions is a psychosexual bog where sadism and incestuous desires writhe.