Executioner’s Sacrament

The Ostrobothnian publishing firm Skrivor has released Gösta Ågren’s latest collection of essays. It’s hard to give the savour of the title – von Bödelns nattvard – in English. Doubling as the name of the final essay in the volume it sets the general tone. ‘von Bödeln’ – a childhood misreading or mishearing of the name of the Swedish General von Döbeln – suggests the presence of a nightmarish executioner-figure who comes to represent all the evil of the world. Not that the subjects of the essays are particularly morbid in themselves – they range from discussions of the Old Testament and the Greek tragedies to an exploration of aspects of the life of William Shakespeare, an analysis of the genesis and history of Nordic runes, a tour of the Spanish Inquisition, and a study of Aztec religion. While there is a general preoccupation with world history, the book never loses its Finnish and Finland-Swedish cultural focus, the voice of one Finland-Swedish author in particular – Hans Ruin – providing almost what amounts to a running commentary on the rest of the meditative ‘action’. Ruin, who lived in Germany during the 1930s and witnessed the rise of Nazism, is cast in the role of the author’s alter ego. In quotation he presents apprehensions about the future of the world and humanity similar to those that are current among many observers today. Ågren sees the greatest danger now, as then, in what he perceives as a collective desire for certainty and order amidst apparent chaos. Yet while the essays tend towards the rejection of Plan as solution, they are nonetheless arranged within a cosmological framework that can only be called religious. This apparent contradiction gives the book a circular feel, not unlike the effect of Ågren’s poetry, with its contiguity of the autobiographical and the universal, its consciousness of ritual, and its awareness of the cycles of individual life and human history as being essentially interrelated.

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