You Are What You Think
The unexamined life is not worth living.
Desiree, a severely disabled woman, spends her entire life in a nursing home, unable to speak or walk or care for herself in any way, and is subject to violent seizures that further erode her already extremely limited physical capabilities. Abandoned by her mother at birth, Desiree is anything but the vegetable that she appears to be. She is a scholar whose taste runs to Einstein, Hawking and works on metaphysics. She is a philosopher, musing upon the conundrums that have haunted mankind for millennia. She is a theologian who doesn’t believe in God, but nonetheless engages in Job-like debates with “The Great Trickster” about His cruel capriciousness in creating monsters like her.
Oh, yes, one other thing—Desiree is a witch, able to travel through time and space, take possession of animate and inanimate life forms, read minds and apprehend events with an almost God-like omniscience. As her health fails and death approaches, she’s decided to pay supernatural visits to the three stepsisters that her mother adopted after abandoning her. They don’t know of her existence, but she knows of theirs—and she’s determined to find out which one of them ‘stole’ the supposedly happy life that should have been hers.
Majgull Axelsson’s April Witch is one of the strangest and most ambitious books in recent memory. Borrowing its title from a famous story by Ray Bradbury, it is a peculiar but compelling mixture of occult fantasy, modern fairy tale, New Age parable and biting social criticism. Originally published in Sweden, in 1997, where it created quite a stir because of its grimly realistic and relentlessly unflattering depiction of the country’s post-war welfare state. It may have raised hackles as well for its equally uncomplimentary portrayal of “class travelers,” the nouveau rich of Swedish society. Imagine a collaboration between Carlos Castenada and Charles Dickens, or Alice Hoffman and Sinclair Lewis, and you begin to see the remarkable scope of the novel—and the tricky balancing act that the author undertakes and accomplishes with breathtaking aplomb.
Not since Moby Dick, which discusses subjects as disparate as art, cetology, ship building, Christology, bookbinding and Zoroastrianism, has a novel managed to incorporate so many intriguing digressions between its covers. Axelsson’s personal interests—science, metaphysics, philosophy, poetry, theology and sociology—imbue her work with a surprising and satisfying richness, without being ponderous, pretentious or preachy. Desiree’s prodigious intellect and astounding psychic gifts distinguish her from most other people on the planet, yet the only one who even begins to have a sense of these extraordinary gifts is her doctor. The nursing home staff considers her to be “a piece of driftwood. A leaky piece of wreckage flotsam and jetsam ”, an unattractive and unproductive member of society who must be fed and housed and cared for at the government’s expense. Within her hearing, they discuss the benefits of pulling the plug on someone who has no apparent value to society and no discernible reason to live.
April Witchexplores the eternal ironies that have always fascinated philosophers, but which take on new and troubling aspects in a highly technological, Big Brother-run society that focuses on productivity and success while paying lip service to a tepid humanitarianism and the sentimental, greeting card ‘warm fuzzies’ that pass for compassion these days. Axelsson challenges our views of what constitutes ‘quality of life’ - and the result is disquieting and thoroughly Socratic.
The black hole of our materialistic and hedonistic contemporary Western culture is, obviously, a popular literary subject, but few authors seem willing to plumb its depths for anything other than profit margin and a chance at the bestseller list. Depravity and despair are cash crops for bottom line-minded authors with an eye for the sensational; Axelsson, however, is not afraid to play Aristotle and force us to consider what really is “the good life for man.”
The result is a book full of disturbing contrasts and contradictions. It is an unsettling notion that Desiree, a victim of fate, gifted with a brilliant mind and trapped in a useless body, is actually better off than her three ‘normal’ stepsisters, who are leading the lives they chose, for better or worse—but mostly, it seems, for the worse. The best of the three has a conspicuously successful, but emotionally empty, superficial, sterile life. The worst of the three is an out-of-control street addict with a mean streak, and the other sister is drifting in a limbo of her own creation, caught in a spiritual and intellectual vacuum. The core irony of the novel rests upon the author’s uncanny ability to portray success as unenviable, carnality as unpleasurable, limitless capabilities as a curse and blessings as a burden, not a bounty.
The recipient of the coveted August Prize in Sweden and a bestseller abroad, April Witch was published in hardcover in the U.S. in 2002, and re-released in paperback in March 2003. It has garnered generally favorable reviews here, and an appreciative audience captivated by its eclectism. The superb translation by Linda Schenk retains the poetic flow and extraordinary grace of Axelsson’s lyrical prose, and makes one want to re-read passages just to savor the well-crafted words the way one enjoys a fine wine.
The author’s magical premise and mesmerizing manipulation of language, however, only serves as yet one more contrast to the stark and perhaps unwelcome reality of her message. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life consists of what a man is thinking about all day.” In a world where issues concerning right-to-life, right-to-death, death-with-dignity and the genetic engineering of ‘designer’ children are hotly debated by high-profile, highly vocal spokespeople of different political and religious persuasions, Axelsson’s contemporary fable is timely, significant, and worthy of attention.