Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Kallocain by Karin Boye

Dystopian swan song
Though best known as a poet in her native country of Sweden, author Karin Boye also wrote five novels, the last of which, Kallocain, was published in 1940. In 1966, Gustaf Lannestock translated the novel into English as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s Nordic Translation Series. Kallocain and ten other Scandinavian novels in the Nordic Translation Series can be read for free online at the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ Digital Collections website.

Kallocain is the memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future. The world he describes is a highly militarized society in which every resource and every action is directed towards the might of the Worldstate, a draconian bureaucracy that strives for military supremacy over the rival states threatening its borders. The architectural structures of this civilization lie largely underground in the form of bunkers, tunnels, and subways, though one can venture surfaceward to a rooftop terrace if granted a permit. As in ancient Sparta, children are taken from their parents at a young age and groomed for military service. The citizens, who call each other “fellow-soldiers,” live under constant surveillance, though they don’t resent it much since their every thought and action is devoted to the almighty state.

Besides his obligatory military duties, Kall works as a chemist in the Worldstate’s Chemistry City No. 4. With little material benefit to gain from his labors in such an austere society, Kall’s only aspiration is to gain respect by ascending to higher and higher rungs of the corporate-military ladder. He has developed a new type of truth serum that forces suspected criminals and traitors to reveal their innermost thoughts. Hoping to enshrine his name in history, he dubs his invention Kallocain. As a devoted servant of the state, Kall hopes that his chemical will be used to root out treasonous individualistic thoughts that poison the rigid communalism of the Worldstate. While questioning volunteer subjects during the testing phase, however, he exposes some contrary thoughts and opinions that cause him to question his values, his career, and his marriage.

Despite some similarities to Big Brother, Boye wrote Kallocain almost a decade before George Orwell published his novel 1984. The dystopia that Boye has conceived in Kallocain bears a closer resemblance to that of Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, published in 1924. Unlike We, however, Kallocain is more realistic, not at all satirical, and more authentic in its portrayal of human psychology and emotion. Published during the rise of the Nazis and Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, Kallocain can rightly be considered a warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. Boye, however, emphasizes the personal over the political. This is not a science fiction adventure story of resistance and revolution, but rather a metaphorical investigation into issues of human nature: the need for love, the fear of intimacy, the allure of conformity, the poison of jealousy, the paranoia of betrayal, and the reluctance to acknowledge or reveal one’s true self. Though set far in the future, Boye’s empathetic insights apply to real lives in today’s world.

While writing the novel, Boye may have been dealing with some of these issues herself. She committed suicide less than a year after finishing Kallocain. Her feelings of melancholy and dread are palpable throughout the book, which remains as a tragic testimony to both her personal struggles and her immense literary talent.
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