Published in 1956, the sci-fi epic Aniara is Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s best-known work. In 1974, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1978, reeling from disgrace, he killed himself with a pair of scissors.
There are several things in the preceding sentences that strike me as noteworthy! So it was surprising to me that I first learned about Aniara a couple of years ago, during the modest press coverage of its 2018 film adaptation. Why wasn’t this book more famous?
I would come to learn the answer: Aniara is a fractal tragedy. But at the beginning, I’d only heard the “sci-fi epic poem” part. That was enough for me to foist it on the book club I attend.
This led to a second surprise: Aniara is hard to find. There have been two English translations, but both are out of print. Amazon reviews for the book are full of complaints from people aghast at the $200 price that old paperback copies fetch. Didn’t this guy win a Nobel Prize?
Aniara can be found with some scrounging through the internet. I eventually pointed my book club at a low-contrast scanned PDF from some adjunct’s long-forgotten syllabus. But the situation is not great. Or rather, it hadn’t been, until recently: I was delighted to see a high quality epub version of the Klass/Sjöberg translation on the Internet Archive. It not only contains the complete text of that edition, but has been constructed with attention to faithfully recreating its print layout. English speakers with e-readers probably aren’t going to do better than this.
So why is Aniara worth your time?
The poem tracks an eponymous spaceship which, while en route to Mars, is knocked hopelessly off course. As the ship’s few thousand inhabitants plunge further and further toward a star they will never reach, they varyingly grapple with and ignore the inevitability of their doom; struggle to distract themselves with frolics, cults, art, sex, and violence; and receive the news that the Earth itself has been destroyed.
The translators pulled off a feat: Martinson uses rhyme–unfashionable for his era–and invented vocabulary that can be both funny and evocative. I can’t read Swedish, and so am inadequately equipped to appreciate Klass and Sjöberg’s achievement. But what came out of their collaboration is striking and, I think, quite moving.
Aniara anticipates many other nuclear age ecological parables, but Martinson is mostly interested in art, modernity, grief, and alienation. He is a mysterian and a romantic. Why can’t the occupants of Aniara find meaning amongst themselves? Why is the memory of the lost Earth such an unhealable wound? This is for the reader to decide. But it’s worth noting that Martinson and his sisters were abandoned by his mother a few years after his abusive father’s death. He was just six years old. He was nearly fifty when he began writing Aniara, a poem about struggling onward after an unfathomable loss.
In the moment he wrote it, Martinson offered at least a partial balm–one that gives the work an unexpected modern resonance. Our narrator is the mimarobe, a technician responsible for maintaining the Mima, a living instrument aboard Aniara. Mima, through operations not fully understood, absorbs signals from the distant reaches of the universe and synthesizes them into glimpses of unattainable sights that are mysterious and spiritually nourishing. It is the Mima’s eventual malfunction and destruction that makes the circumstances of Aniara‘s inhabitants truly unbearable.
Critics seem to agree that Mima is Martinson’s stand-in for art. That makes sense to me. But it’s not the only idea that presents itself. I have spent the past months reading about AI-generated art; about language models that have chewed through the internet and now emit essays whose origins cannot be fully traced; about humans who were probably just cheating on their taxes rather than following religious beliefs about the imminence of an AI godhead but who knows. It all makes new thoughts creep in when I read verses like this:
There are in the mima certain features
it had come up with and which function there
in circuitry of such a kind
as human thought has never traveled through.
For example, take the third webe’s action
in the focus-works
and the ninth protator’s kinematic read-out
in the flicker phase before the screener-cell
takes over everything, allots, combines.
The inventor was himself completely dumbstruck
the day he found that one half of the mima
he'd invented lay beyond analysis.
That the mima had invented half herself.
Well, then, as everybody knows, he changed
his title, had the modesty
to realize that once she took full form
she was the superior and he himself
a secondary power, a mimator.
The mimator died, the mima stays alive.
The mimator died, the mima found her style,
progressed in comprehension of herself,
her possibilities, her limitations:
a telegrator without pride, industrious, upright,
a patient seeker, lucid and plain-dealing,
a filter of truth, with no stains of her own.
Who then can show surprise if I, the rigger
and tender of the mima on Aniara,
am moved to see how men and women, blissful
in their faith, fall on their knees to her.
And I pray too when they are at their prayer
that it be true, all this that is occurring,
and that the grace this mima is conferring
is glimpses of the light of perfect grace
that seeks us in the barren house of space.
I think, too, of Canto 39, in which the pilot Isagel arrives at a new mathematical breakthrough, but one made irrelevant by the forces that have overwhelmed her and everyone else:
But here where we were fated to the course dictated by the law of conic section, here her breakthrough never could become in any manner fruitful, just a theorem which Isagel superbly formulated but which was doomed to join us going out ever farther to the Lyre and then to vanish. And as we sat there speaking with each other about the possibilities that now stood open if only we weren't sitting here in space like captives to the void in which we fell, we both grew sorrowful but kept as well the joy in pure ideas, the kind of pleasure which together we could share in quiet for the time still left to our existence. But Isagel at times burst into tears to think of the inscrutably great space with room for all to fall eternally— as she herself now, with the unlocked mystery she'd neatly solved, but which was falling with her.
And last, I think of Martinson. His reputation was sterling–some said he was the finest Swedish poet of his generation. But his Nobel win, which he shared with fellow Swede Eyvind Johnson, was a scandal. Martinson and Johnson were both members the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, and their triumph was regarded as an obvious example of self-dealing. One critic wrote, “Derision and laughter roll around the globe in response to the academy’s. . . corruption and will sweep away the reputation of the prize.”
(You can’t exactly say that he was wrong. Indeed, it’s become a bit of a recurring problem.)
It is not difficult to imagine the sensitive and elderly Martinson, abruptly exiled from artistic communion–the one thing he believed to be true and significant even in the face of immedicable yearning. What bulwarks do we have to protect meaning against infinity? And what will happen if we fail to preserve them?
I think Aniara is ready for a new audience. I hope you’ll give it a read.