Kallocain by Karin Boye

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Translated by David McDuff

Review by Karen Langley

kallocain karin boye david mcduff penguin classics

Our modern world often seems to be getting very close to a dystopian nightmare, and most of our visions of that kind of world tend to be drawn from works like “Brave New World” and “Nineteen Eighty Four”. However, there are any number of works predicting a dark future for humanity, often written at troubled times during the 20th century; and Penguin have recently reissued such a book which has unjustly slipped from view – “Kallocain” by Karin Boye.

Boye was a Swedish author most known in her home country for her poetry; however, it’s her novels, in particular this one, which have brought her international recognition. Her life was short (born in 1900, she committed suicide in 1941) and also complex; a committed anti-fascist, after an apparent marriage of convenience she left her husband, underwent psychoanalysis and spent much of the rest of her life with her partner, Margot Hanel, to whom she referred as her “wife”.

“The sacred and necessary foundation of the State’s existence is our mutual well-founded mistrust of each other.”

“Kallocain” is subtitled “A Novel of the 21st Century” and is set in a future world which is tightly controlled. The population is subdued and subdivided, with the main protagonist Leo Kall, a scientist, living with his wife Linda in Chemistry City No. 4. People’s lives have been reduced to a basic existence; they have their work function, they marry in order to produce future “Fellow Soldiers” for the World State, and all feelings and emotions are suppressed. Everyone is hiding their real self from everybody else, as to display anything at odds with the requirements of those in control is an aberration. Children are taken away from parents at a certain age, and if a marriage does not produce children or fails, the partners divorce and remarry. The landscape is grim, and in fact most of the population never seem to see the outdoors.

“I stood in the great darkness, powerfully illuminated by spotlights; from out of the darkness I felt the Eyes directed at me, and I wriggled like a worm to get away, but I could not avoid feeling mortified with shame at the indecent rags I was wearing. Only later did I realise that it was a good picture of my relationship with Linda, in which I felt myself to be frighteningly transparent…”

As the book opens, Kall is imprisoned and embarking on his story in almost diary form. He has invented a new drug, a truth serum, which will cause anyone injected to immediately spill the beans about anything and everything; it is impossible for them to resist. The drug is tested and proved to work; the authorities are of course desperate to get control of it. There appears to be little active resistance to the World State – how could there be, when they have such control over the bodies and minds of their people? Yet, as the drug is tested, strange anomalies appear; people whose resistance consists of believing in a better world, away from the controls, where humans can actually meet and commune face to face, drawing on a latent connection with the natural world. The World State may think it has eliminated individual, private thought, but it seems from the effects of Kallocain that they have not…

“Human!… Such a mystique people have built up around that word! As if there was something worthy of respect about being human! It’s a biological concept, after all. Where it’s anything else, it will be best to get rid of it as quickly as possible.”

Running alongside this thread is the story of Leo himself and his marriage to his wife Linda. Despite the need to suppress emotion, Leo suffers from jealousy and, as the book progresses, discovers he has an actual need to know what his wife is thinking, to get under her skin and make a very human connection. As events comes to a climax, some unethical behaviour enables him to break through the emotional walls between them – but at what cost?

“I told myself that what I wanted from cohabitation between a man and a woman was merely a superstition, and nothing else, just as much of a superstition as when the savages of ancient times ate the hearts of their brave enemies in order to partake of their courage. There was no magical act that could give me the key and the title deeds to the paradise Linda was keeping from me. So then what was the point of it all?”

“Kallocain” is a remarkable book; gripping, scary and prescient in many ways, it tackles some very deep themes as well as telling a compelling story. Boye explores, really, what it means to be a human being; despite training, upbringing and forms of social control, the inner life and emotions of a human can’t be completely suppressed, and Kall struggles with his nature throughout the book. The slightly ambiguous ending did leave me wondering what future there was for humanity and whether the race would escape from its claustrophobic control; I guess only time would tell, in the same way as it’s hard to tell know how we will come through the present difficult phase of our planet’s history where certain elements are so busy dehumanising those whom they perceive to be different.

”…nowadays our biologists consider it fully proven that we here in the World State and those creatures on the other side of the border are quite simply descended from different species of apes, as different as night and day, and so unlike each other that one may very well wonder if the “peoples” of the neighbour state should be called people at all.”

Boye was, of course, writing her story during the Second World War and that conflict certainly informed her narrative. She had witnessed first hand the rise of the Nazis while visiting Germany in the 1920s and 1930s; and was well aware of the risk of reducing people to simply cogs in a huge machine. One of the strongest elements in the book is the story of Linda, Kall’s wife; allowed limited contact with her children, simply to prepare them for service to state, when her emotions are finally allowed release we see that the female sensibility is a powerful force to be set against the state; and her fate is likely to be very different from her husband’s.

“Kallocain” is rendered into English by esteemed translator David McDuff (known for his versions of a number of Russian books, particularly Dostoevsky); and he also provides an enlightening introduction which puts Boye and her book firmly into context, as well as giving some fascinating background information about the author. Published chronologically between “Brave New World” and “Nineteen Eighty Four”, “Kallocain” really does take a very original look at potential futures for the race and how necessary our human qualities are to our survival and our resistance of a totalitarian state. It’s a message we would do well to remember and hold onto in this troublesome day and age…

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and doesn’t like the way the world is going.

Kallocain by Karin Boye (Penguin, 2019) 9780241355589, 170pp, paperback.

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