Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village 
by Marit Kapla, translated by Peter Graves.
Allen Lane, 803 pp., £20, November 2021, 978 0 241 53520 2
Show More
Show More

Where​ is Osebol? Marit Kapla offers no introduction to this oral history of a Swedish village, just a map showing the southern half of the country and a cluster of places along the Klarälven river, which crosses from Norway. Much of the life of the village – education, work, shopping, fun – occurs in these other places. There are the secondary schools in Stöllet and Torsby, the shops in Malung and the ski lodge at Branäs. There is Ambjörby, where Karin met Alf at a Boxing Day dance in the 1940s. A hundred miles away is Örebro, where Jan travels every week to build ‘architect-designed’ houses: ‘Bright orange really makes your house stick out.//But the people who move in/seem pleased with it.’

I don’t think there are any orange houses in Osebol, but no one goes into that kind of detail. They speak of the forest, the bridge, the church, the river and the road, as if drawing a map. We aren’t invited to look at the place, but we hear what it means to people. Not that they say so directly. In 2016 and 2017, Kapla, who grew up in Osebol, interviewed almost every adult in the village, ranging in age from 18 to 92. Two-thirds of them were born in the first half of the last century; just one was born in this. Each life story is given in fragments that have been intensively lineated. Although these are not poems, Kapla takes a poet’s approach, attending to the rhythms of thought and breaking the natural phrase as if breaking a surface. Her translator, Peter Graves, more than rises to the challenge this presents. He has found a register in English – both offhand and choral – that brings the voices together without letting them merge. The result is that these eight hundred sparse pages offer as much as a 19th-century novel: a looming past and destabilised present, sweethearts and lonely hearts, casualties and entrepreneurs, grand plans, quiet satisfactions, and a fair amount of settling and enduring.

Karin Håkansson (1926-2017) begins: ‘How silly of me!//We could easily have drunk coffee out of the cups/the doctor drank his coffee from/when Alf was born.’ Alf would have been 93, which makes the cups ‘at least a hundred years old’. Karin worked in a café in Torsby and went to that Boxing Day dance and lived in Osebol for more than sixty years in the house in which Alf was born.

North of us is Alvar’s field

South of us used to be Bengt’s
but the fellow at Eftnäs has it now
he came into it after Bengt.

After that it’s Per-Erik.

Then comes Nystuga
and everything belonging to it
all the land.

Over to the east is Törnsgårn
over by the bridge.

There are no more fields after that.

Her named and portioned world is nestled in silence: ‘We didn’t get to hear about everything then/the way we do now.’ She watches the news every night, while others come to Osebol to escape it. For Johnny Munk Laursen, who is Danish, it’s a place of ‘trees, trees, trees, trees’ and air so rich that ‘when we come up here/we sleep.//We sleep deeply/with the windows open/to let the wind blow in.’

Karin loved to be in the forest even when she worked picking berries and carried a 30kg basket. When the hunters gathered in her barn to divide up the elk, she was expected to produce coffee and cake for sixty. ‘You’d get home/and the place was full of meat/you had to deal with.’ One day, when her son was seven, she was late returning from the forest, ‘and he said/You know what/he said/You have to be at home/when I come home.’ Her sense was that ‘I mustn’t not be there.’ She had to be so emphatically present that it could only be expressed as a double negative: I must not not. Later, she worked in a school kitchen: ‘I’ve always been in a kitchen.’ No wonder she loves the forest so much. Other older women imply the same thing: time in the forest, with the possibility of being out of sight and even of getting lost, is respite from too directed a life.

Kapla has retained the order in which people spontaneously speak of things, not sequential so much as concentric. Each memory sits within the rest and moves us towards the speaker’s core. Per-Erik Andersson begins with a cautionary tale about a neighbour who drank, made some bad deals, lost his house and moved into the stable opposite. Next he speaks of the filling station where the men used to meet every evening before the advent of television. Only then does he turn to his simple and solid childhood, and how he taught himself electronics, set up a business and got work repairing the motors at the chipboard factory. At the core is Inger, whom he met at a dance in 1989. He was almost fifty and she was out celebrating having become a grandmother. He moved in with her in Malung but then she got ill. ‘That calendar up there/the one still up on the wall/is for December two thousand and eight.//That must be the last year she came here with me.’ Everything has slipped through his fingers, just as it did for the man who ended up in the stable.

Armgard zu Putlitz’s life in Osebol has been ‘Boring/or tedious/but wonderful for all that.’ She was born in Germany, where her father was imprisoned by both the Nazis and the Russians. The family later discovered that he had been tortured and then committed suicide. They escaped to Sweden, where Armgard got a job as a teacher in Stöllet in 1966. ‘I’ve lived here ever since/and the rest isn’t worth talking about.’ The rest has been work – carrying a sackful of saplings up steep slopes in her fifties, and night duty on a hotel reception desk. She was able to face going to the place where her father died and meeting the man who shared his cell because she could come back to Osebol. She still likes to pick berries though now she sometimes buys them instead. She has got lost once or twice, ‘but I really have to go into the forest.’

A village is defined by its scale relative to a hamlet or a town. It wants to thrive but not to grow. Village life allows you to stall the future or reactivate the past. There are those who move to a village because of the books they read as a child and who have no idea how tough, lonely and boring it can be. Tranquillity means isolation, tradition means exclusion, and quiet means you have to be quiet too. You want to relax, but there’s nothing to do. Annemarie den Heijer and Rick Keulen moved to Osebol to live ‘the old-fashioned way’. They planned an outdoor adventure business called Basic Sweden (slogan: ‘Men Stay Boys’) and got as far as acquiring some stickers and bicycles before diverting into second-hand furniture. ‘We didn’t do anything/just put it in the car/and unloaded it from the car/and a woman from The Hague thought/Wow!’ They took a photo of someone’s old settle and sent it to a factory in Romania: ‘The Osebol settle.//You can find it on the internet.’

Those who have lived the past see it differently from those who have researched it. Åke Axelsson started a folk-dancing team but fell out with the other members over his unruliness and their insistence on the right clothes. He was told that the purpose of the group was to ‘preserve local culture.//In that case, I said,/I must be thinking along the right lines/because we’ve been boozing and stamping our feet in Ekshärad/ever since the beginning of time.’ Lars Jörlén, a teacher, expected ‘rosy-cheeked children/who got up in the morning/drove the cows out to pasture/went back for a wholesome plate of porridge’, but his pupils were pale and exhausted from sitting up late over buns and coffee with their parents. ‘What’s more I discovered/that drinking, just drinking/was an activity in its own right.’ The men would gather and the wives would sit in cars outside waiting to drive them home. It sounds about as much fun as the folk-dancing team after Åke was kicked out.

Perhaps what people crave most from village life is coherence. They emulate those who grew up with everything in one place: a bit of land, a horse, a cow and chickens, a mother in the kitchen and a father out all day with his axe. The older inhabitants talk of all this and wild strawberries too, but they also remember starving, barefoot children being taken into houses where seven lived in two rooms, the church fining a family for having an illegitimate child, and the relentless physical work. ‘It looks wonderful when you see/an old film of working with a horse in the snow.’ Horses and axes gave way to tractors and chainsaws, and now one machine does the work of sixty men. Hunting licences are restricted, elk numbers depleted and the village is at best ambivalent about the protection of wolves. Water levels have been unstable since the introduction of ‘river regulation’, and while the forest is a huge resource, local businesses struggle to compete. The chipboard factory is derelict, the ski slope closed because of problems with the power supply, and the ski lodge at Branäs was built out of ‘modules/shipped over from Estonia’ even though the same units were available 25 miles away. There are warnings and solutions, but no one seems to be listening.

People talk about jobs, schools and transport rather than scenery. ‘Living here is wonderful/that’s not the problem.//The problem is the logistics.’ When Jan Hagström gets home from building orange houses he’s too tired to do anything. The main local work is looking after the elderly: visiting, delivering meals, or in the care home, where ‘we were supposed to write down/what we did/and what they did … The only thing we didn’t have to make a note of/was which foot/we put through the door first.’ Resources are stretched thin across the region. The dinner ladies cover two schools every other day and the head teacher does two half-days a week in three or four. The fire crew is being cut and the priest covers several parishes. In the Torsby area, the population swells by ten thousand during the ski season, and the A&E becomes ‘pretty much a conveyor belt’.

The villagers have deep and specific friendships but show neither insight nor curiosity about most of their neighbours. In this, as elsewhere, they balance proximity and space. István Fóth says that ‘people visit people at home/but certain people/only visit certain people.’ He arrived in Sweden as a teenage refugee from Hungary. They were scrubbed and disinfected, but the hotel fed them well ‘and I’m pretty sure/the king himself came and visited.//There was a positive sort of attitude/to the refugee issue at that time.’ There was also a labour shortage, and companies came to offer jobs. István’s father had walked to Sweden ten years earlier looking for work, ‘and over the course of ten years/people tend to form other relationships.//And then we arrived.//The other individual/stepped aside/to allow the family to be reunited.//So we tried.’ István’s language stiffens as he pushes that memory away and talks instead of the high times he had as an art student in Stockholm and the work collective he came to Osebol to set up, making wooden play equipment. The collective was so successful that it fell apart.

The generalised foreigner moves spectrally through the specificity of these lives. The old forestry school was turned into a centre for unaccompanied child refugees, where Anna-Karin works. She speaks of reading about the boat crossings, ‘And then suddenly you find yourself/sitting opposite a mother who/was actually there holding on/to her two-year-old boy/so he wouldn’t fall in.’ The centre is due to close. Some understand what refugees offer the village and would like them to stay, but there are no jobs and no houses. Others talk of ‘balance’ as they do when speaking of wolves. There is a pre-emptive sense of caution bound up in a general welcome. Karin: ‘We’ve certainly got a lot of foreigners.//If there’s room for them, why not?//They need help.//But the people still left there need help, too.//Perhaps even more.’

The youngest person we hear from is Celina Barhammar, who was born in 2002. She interrupts her mother, Annica, who is reminiscing about spending all day outside in a scrum of kids with nothing more than a sandpit to entertain them. ‘What is there to do then?’ Celina asks. And where are the other kids to do it with? Her mother says Celina thinks her ‘unbelievably old-fashioned’. ‘Yes!’ Celina says, and with that she is gone. I wonder if she will move away. We don’t hear from those who chose to leave or who didn’t come back. Instead we meet those who stayed because it is where they live. They have the forest, the church, the bridge, the river, the road.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences