Thursday, 6 December 2012

Kallocain by Karin Boye (3.5/5)

The back says: This classic Swedish novel envisioned a future of drab terror. Seen through the eyes of idealistic scientist Leo Kall, Kallocain's depiction of a totalitarian world state is a montage of what novelist Karin Boye had seen or sensed in 1930s Russia and Germany. Its central idea grew from the rumors of truth drugs that ensured the subservience of every citizen to the state.

I say: I read this in Swedish, but since it has been translated into English I thought I’d write the review in English since I think that this is a book that doesn’t get nearly the attention it needs.

So, Leo Kall has invented a truth serum called Kallocain, which he proposes be used on all citizens to detect any form of animosity towards the state, or even to help prevent crimes before they happen. We are somewhere in a future totalitarian state where the citizens are taught that the state is everything and they are merely tools at its disposal. Leo ended his first marriage since they couldn’t have any children, and then remarried and had three. It is the duty of every citizen to provide the state with as many children as possible, and at the age of 8 the children are sent to the state for education (they are allowed to visit their parents occasionally). There are “police eyes” and “police ears” everywhere and each household has a maid that is to report weekly on the family’s activity.

So far, so creepy.

At the start of the book Leo is very loyal to the state and is thrilled that people now are able to be convicted for thought crimes. Initially he wanted the Kallocain to be used in court in order to save time, but after trying the serum on a man who admits that he doesn’t think the state is everything, he realises that all citizens’ thoughts should belong to the state. They thus start a campaign to use the Kallocain on as many citizens as they can by introducing a system whereby you can anonymously inform on anyone you think is guilty of a thought crime. Those convicted are then sent to a work camp where they are unable to contaminate other citizens’ minds.

As always with these stories, there comes a point whereby Leo starts questioning his own thoughts about the state and the consequences of his product.

Dun dun dun dun...

More than anything, I loved the premise of the book. It’s quite interesting how this was published 8 years before 1984 by George Orwell, deals with the same issues and yet is so unknown. I’ve heard about it all my life but never bothered to read it, mostly because I didn’t realise how thought-provoking it is.

The only issue I had with it was that I didn’t really like the way it was written. I realise that this may not be the case with the English translation, but the Swedish was rather dry and somewhat boring, to be honest. It’s written like an explanation by Leo as to how he wound up where he is, so we know that he somehow winds up in captivity of some sort, and that was a nice element as I wanted to know how he ended up there – it kept my interest in the story. There is also some tension between Leo and his supervisor and his wife, and we are constantly wondering which one, if any, is guilty of a thought crime, and if anyone will turn them in.

The psychological aspect was very well-done.

So yeah, I’m giving this a 3.5/5 because of the way it was written and also, I suspect, because I read this after 1984. It’s always when I read books like this that I wish I was a part of a book club and could discuss them. Instead I shall try my best (and fail, as per usual) to get someone to read it so that I don’t have to keep talking to myself.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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