In My Flesh Shall I See God

The Way of a Serpent | Torgny LindgrenO Lord, was it him, Karl Orsa the farmer and shopkeeper, you wanted to bury that time when you tore apart Slough Hill like that, or was it me and my house and Johanna? And the children who had not yet lived their lives? – p.9

Torgny Lindgren opens The Way of a Serpent with an “Appendix to the Secretary’s Annual Report to the Vasterbotten County Agricultural Society, 1882.” In it, the official mentions a landslide, the occurrence of which “seem to be indisputable,” in “these godforsaken backwoods” where the inhabitants “have an unfortunate tendency to prefer stories to actual reality,” the sad truth of which would later become clear as we follow the short peasant Johan’s pleas to God.

Johan’s family has been in debt to the village shopkeeper Karl Orsa ever since Johan’s grandfather was swindled off his land by Orsa’s father. Starting with Johan’s own mother, it became the tradition for the usurious Orsas’ to claim the women of the poor peasant’s family for their pleasures if this debt was left unpaid. This led to a situation where Johan’s own sister, Eva, “the daughter of Ol Karlsa who was Karl Orsa’s father” also became “half-sister to… her father and also an aunt to her own sister and almost like a sister-in-law to her own mother.”

But the hapless family, while lamenting their situation, accepted it at the same time as an unchangeable state, and formed an unhealthy dependence on the landlord as exemplified by Johan’s admission that “it was like a real help to hear it: that Karl Orsa would take care of everything.”

This injustice is justified by religion:

Even Jesus Christ said you should charge interest. That you were bad and lazy if you didn’t make sure you received interest. If you owe a debt to the Lord then you have to make sure you receive his forgiveness now and then, and the interest on a money debt is like God’s forgiveness for the fact that you can’t repay it all at once.” p. 53

And a stance that is very fashionable today, as illustrated in the following conversation between Johan and his wife:

“It’s not because he wants to. It’s only because of the debts.”

“Are you trying to exuse him?” I said.

“No one can excuse him,” she said. “But he’s still a human being.”

But, of course, as we often forget

The fact that you’re a human being isn’t an excuse for anybody. Yet it’s as if it meant that we’re not guilty of anything. As if human beings are never really responsible for anything. As if human beings had paid a bit of their debt right from birth just by taking on themselves the burden of living a human life. p. 98

But just when Johan looked like he was finally taking things in his own hand by shooting the old usurer, divine intervention interferes. The aforementioned landslide swallowed up both his enemy and family, ridding him of the family he failed to protect and provide for as well as his object of retribution. Ultimately, our hero moves from the search of guarantees from a Higher Being to a realization that “in my flesh shall I see God.”

This book, read as part of the Global Voices Book Challenge in commemoration of UNESCO’s World Book Day, in its brief and simple yet gripping rendition of feudal exploitation in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, also gives us a glimpse of a dark reality that continues to persist today many parts of the world. ■

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