Kerrang! Whoosh-whoosh! Squeeeeeeeee!
The telephone connection to Stockholm from Toronto is bad, with the static akin to the sound of potato chips being crunched in a bag. Abetting the communication breakdown is the interviewee himself, a 45-year-old Turkish-born Kurd who's called Sweden home for the last 30 years and who this morning is pluckily answering, in fractured, accented English, the questions posed by a Canadian journalist.
Kurdo Baksi is his name. And if that sounds familiar, it's because it's also the moniker of a character, a publisher, in fact, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third crime novel from Sweden's Stieg Larsson.
The coincidence in names is entirely intentional. Beginning in 1992, Baksi and Larsson were real-life comrades-in-arms in the occasionally murderous struggle against racism, xenophobia and fascism in Europe.
It was Baksi who saved Larsson's struggling anti-racist journal Expo from extinction in late 1998 by agreeing to publish it as a supplement to his own political periodical, Svartvitt (Black and White). It was Baksi who, on the evening of Nov. 9, 2004, rushed to the Stockholm hospital where, just before his first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was published,Larsson died, at 50, of a heart attack.
And it's Baksi who's now promoting the English translation of his memoir, Stieg Larsson, My Friend.
The memoir is decidedly slight, less than 150 pages. It's also curious and controversial in part because Baksi, the author of several books on human rights and a lecturer on immigration and integration, claims a bond with Larsson ("He called me his kid brother and I called him my big brother") barely conveyed by the text. While the reader gets the now-obligatory references to Larsson's fondness for coffee and cigarettes (20 cups a day, 60 to 80 smokes a day), his insomnia and "the fantastic energy" he expended on myriad political causes, there's precious little of the textures or confidences that usually constitute a memoir, let alone a friendship.
Did Larsson, for instance, have a sense of humour? When they shared a bottle of whisky, did they talk about women and sex? Yes and yes, answered Baksi. "He had black humour ... In his professional life, serious. But privately, we were laughing all the time."
As for Larsson's reputed sexual charisma, "Well, I don't like to speak about Stieg Larsson and the women," Baksi remarked, chuckling. In part, this is because Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson's devoted significant other for 30 years, has publicly criticized Baksi for "making things up" and "exaggerating his importance" in her lover's life. Regardless, observed Baksi, "the ladies liked Stieg Larsson very much."
However, Baksi seems to have had no hesitation in revealing what he believes is one of the autobiographical wellsprings of both Larsson's fiction and his commitment to social justice. The incident, according to Baksi, occurred in the summer of 1969 when Larsson, then 15, "watched three friends rape a girl the same age as himself."
Loyal to his friends, Larsson didn't protest or try to stop the assault, but soon after realized he should have intervened. Later, when Larsson begged the girl for forgiveness (her name was Lisbeth, also the name of Larsson's most famous character, private investigator/hacker Lisbeth Salander), she angrily declined.
When Larsson told Baksi this story, "It was obvious ... that the girl's voice still echoed in his ears, even after he had written three novels about vulnerable, violated and raped women."
In person, Baksi is an interesting combination of the voluble and the circumspect. He's recently been taken to task for allegedly claiming Larsson was not an especially good journalist, that he made up parts of his investigative stories and that he, Baksi, questioned Larsson's abilities as a fiction writer. But none of these claims is found in the memoir. Indeed, said Baksi, "I am very angry to those people who have said a lot of things in my name."
Baksi isn't one of those who believe Larsson was incapable of writing the Millennium trilogy without help. Before switching to fiction, Larsson had published, as editor or writer, several works of non-fiction under Baksi's auspices "documenting things such as immigration, integration, racism, anti-racism, neo-Nazi growth and so on." Moreover, as Baksi makes clear, Larsson "had been mad on science fiction since his teens." Later, he developed an avid and astute interest in such crime novelists such as Minette Walters, Patricia Cornwell and Sara Paretsky, occasionally writing articles about the genre.
Nevertheless, Baksi admitted to being "surprised" when his friend took up crime writing. "I didn't believe they would be so good, man. I refused to read them when he was alive! So, what else to say?" said Baksi, laughing. "Never underestimate your friends."
In fact, now Baksi declares Larsson to be "much more deep" than, say, James Ellroy or John le Carré, even suggesting that his books, "with their considerable information about the society," deserve comparison with those of Alice Munro. "He's got the feminism, the anti-racism."
Stylistic merits aside, Baksi argues that Larsson's worldwide literary appeal rests on two "very good reasons." One, Lisbeth Salander is "a very unusual protagonist" since in most crime books, he said, "you have a fat-man policeman who very easily goes around to find a murder." Second. Larsson's novels, with their corrupt politicians and cops, dastardly businessmen and bikers, overturn the notion of Sweden as a "postcard paradise" of nice furniture, well-paying jobs and good cars. In other words, it's not "a mixture of Canada and Switzerland."