Towards the end of the Book of Revelation – known in Swedish as Uppenbarelseboken – lies the following verse (chapter 21:4):

And he shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain; for the former things are passed away.

It is a passage that conveys the hopefulness of faith, and is one of the more obviously utopian verses in the Bible’s controversial final book. Many authors have responded to Revelation, seeing in it a variety of meanings and messages. DH Lawrence, for instance, conceived of the book as the least Christian thing in the Bible but was nevertheless fascinated by its apocalyptic visions. His last book, not entirely without coincidence, was a study of the Book of Revelation published under the title Apocalypse. Other authors with a particular interest include Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote a considerable amount on the subject in the 1670s and 1680s; John Milton who drew on it for his most famous works; and in more recent times poets such as Christina Rossetti, whose commentary The Face of the Deep appeared in 1892, two years before her death from breast cancer.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

For Rossetti, Revelation 21:4 proposes the ending of pain but also the faith required to believe that that is the final outcome. ‘I have witnessed tears, death, sorrow, crying, pain’, she wrote, ‘God grant that I may witness the general and particular abolition of all these when death shall at length be swallowed up in victory’. One Victorian biographer of her observed that Revelation was a childhood favourite of Rossetti’s and that her deep knowledge of the book – which is quite apparent to readers of her commentaries – developed from those early years of her life. When I’ve spoken to missionaries one the streets and asked them about this passage, this is quite often their experience too. The hopeful aspects of Revelation, with its fleshing out of the purpose of faith (if it’s possible to call it that), seem to provide a useful introduction to the meaning of the Bible for young people. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it has occupied the thoughts of scholars, artists, and writers, for centuries – especially at moments of change or departure.

Faith developed in childhood, alongside this particular passage of the Book of Revelation, feature significantly in Jonas Gardell’s modern classic, Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar (Never Wipe Tears Without Gloves). First published in Sweden between 2012 and 2013, the novel was a major success shedding light on increasingly forgotten aspects of 1980s Swedish society and the limitations of tolerance, even there, in moments of difficulty. Set primarily in Stockholm, the novel is essentially about the protagonist’s navigation of his own sexuality, religious faith, relationships, and the AIDS crisis. Unfortunately, the novel has yet to be published in English, and I suspect the moment has passed for that to have happened. What is available, however, is the television adaptation which was shown in Sweden in October 2012 and on BBC 4 the following year. Although not entirely the same – no adaptation ever is, for obvious reasons – the television serial provides a clear navigation of the novel’s plot and ideas for audiences without the language. Given their close relationship, what follows draws on both.

Benjamin Nilsson, the central character of Gardell’s trilogy, is a young Jehovah’s Witness whose faith is gained early and serves as the gel maintaining his relationship with his parents. Revelation 21:4 is often quoted by Benjamin and he explains to his friends that it is his favourite verse in the Bible serving as inspirational guidance to him. The relationship with the novel’s title is an obvious one, but it serves as a reminder that the medical response to AIDS was draconian and that even so humane an act as wiping the tears of someone crying through excruciating pain had to be carefully managed according to strict regulations. No longer was it seen as safe to wipe tears by human hand, but by hands covered by latex gloves and other protective layering. Only God, in such a circumstance, could remove the tears. As the Swedish runs:

Han ska torka varje tår från deras ögon och döden ska inte finnas mer. Inte heller ska sorg eller skrik eller smärta finnas mer. Det som en gång var, är borta.

The insistence, never wipe tears without gloves, comes at the beginning of the first part of the trilogy, Kärleken (The Lovers). Two nurses attend to a patient – we learn later (and this is to give nothing away, especially for those who watch the television adaptation) that the patient’s name is Reine. As they go to leave the room, the younger, more sympathetic nurse, who has removed her gloves already, wipes a tear running down Reine’s face. She is scolded by her older colleague – do you not know the rules, do you not understand how dangerous that is, never wipe tears without gloves. The only protest the young nurse can offer is that the patient deserved the dignity of being treated as a human being.

That plea frames the entire novel: for it is, at its most basic, a study in (in)tolerance and the ways in which society is forced to confront its own fears and those who do not fulfil the essential criteria of the majority. The obvious parallel in European literature is to Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) published shortly after the Second World War in 1947, or to José Saramago’s more recent (1995) work Blindness. In both novels the breakdown of societal norms is precipitated by an unknown virus which cannot be immediately cured, and although AIDS gained its ominous acronym, in the primary period covered by Gardell’s novel the same was true even of that disease. To get it was to be handed, with relatively few remarkable exceptions, a death sentence. Heroism in that context was, as Tony Judt observed of Camus’s novel, ‘doing extraordinary things out of simple decency’. Wiping tears without gloves.

If tolerance provides the thematic meaning of Gardell’s novel, its foundations lie in religion and religious imagery is present throughout the novel. To have a protagonist who is a Jehovah’s Witness is one way of integrating religion into the narrative, but it is far more developed than that. A key motif, for instance, is the Christmas dinner, which despite its presentation is really a development of the Seder (I’ll come back to that idea). Led by Paul, the novel’s primary Jewish character, the Jul gathering brings together a group of friends whose initial connection is their sexuality but who ultimately provide a strong, alternative family unit. That the group resembles Jesus and his disciples is not to mistake Gardell’s meaning I don’t think. The primary characters within the group of friends are Paul, Benjamin, and Rasmus, whom Benjamin encounters at his first ‘Christmas’ and falls in love with (Rasmus deriving from the same Greek source as Erasmus, that is – to love). There is an irony to these festivities, namely their contrast with the strict religious observance of Benjamin’s own family. As Witnesses they do not celebrate Christmas, of course, but their orthodox, austere lifestyle is also very deliberately contrasted with the glitter, tinsel and baubles found in Paul’s flat ahead of the dinner.

The religious overtones to Paul and Benjamin’s relationship are also confessional ones. Benjamin first encounters Paul during his missionary work, and it’s at this moment that Benjamin recites Revelation 21:4 to Paul for the first time. The conclusion of that first meeting is the hurried question from Paul ‘you know you’re a homosexual, right?’, which panics Benjamin and brings to the surface buried feelings. Their second encounter, which takes the form of a religious confession, sees Benjamin ask the searching ‘how did you know’ before making his plea ‘I want to love someone who can love me’ – his religious faith (and that of his parents) having long taught him that his sexuality was wrong and that the only way to remain part of his family was to suppress and remain silent on the matter. The contrast between a biblical God who promised the end of pain and suffering and the realities of doctrinal teaching and austere religious community could not be starker.

Paul’s alternative Seder is an important development of this quite personal confession. Around the table, with the wine and champagne, the friends express thanks for what has happened over the course of the year. Finding love, meeting friends, coming to terms with one’s self – these form part of the list that the group is thankful for. And there comes a further iteration of Benjamin’s favourite verse from Revelation securing the religious symbolism of the event.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Reconciliation of personal faith and familial religiosity never proves possible. Gardell’s realism – together with the interlacing of historical reportage – nuances this clash between religion and personal dilemma. Priests willingly ‘cover up’ sexuality in funeral orations, bishops denounce homosexuality and declare the bögpest (lit. queer plague) a necessary evil to cleanse humanity, and Benjamin’s parents present him with his own funeral wake and cut him out of their lives entirely rather than have to embrace a gay son. At each turn in the novel organised religion appears hypocritical, intolerant, and an entirely negative force. Personal faith, on the other hand, offers reconciliation with the promises made by God in scripture. In a sense this is the existential path that is clearly present in the novel – and which, it seems to me, has its roots in the Scandinavian Christian existential tradition that followed the work of Søren Kierkegaard. At the end of the first part of the trilogy, love brings about fundamental change in Benjamin’s life. Kierkegaard’s perspective is valuable:

Love is a change, the most remarkable of all, but the most desirable – in fact we say in a very good sense that someone who is gripped by love is changed or becomes changed. Love is a revolution, the most profound of all, but the most blessed! (Kjerlighedens Gjerninger / Works of Love, 1847).

In a realistic sense, and with something of a nod to its more famous forebear, the first part of Never Wipe Tears might even have been called something along the lines of ‘the metamorphosis’ for such is what happens to Benjamin during its course.

That Never Wipe Tears engages so explicitly with religion ought not to be a great surprise: prior to its publication Gardell had written two books Om Gud (2003) and Om Jesus (2009), both exploring aspects of religious faith and seeking to go beyond the prevalent public perceptions of both. In the case of the latter, for instance, by presenting Jesus as a typical man thrust into extraordinary circumstance. He was, Gardell wrote later, an individual with a funny accent which in a refined city like Jerusalem would have been considered uncouth and backward. Or in Gardell’s words:

Vi måste alltså tänka oss en obildad och fattig Jesus som pratar på bred värmländska.

We should think, therefore, of a poor, uneducated Jesus speaking in a broad Värmland accent. (Värmland being in the rural west of Sweden).

Imagine him being called the messiah!

Of course, in a coming of age novel dominated by the looming – and then very real – threat of the AIDS crisis, the entire narrative is framed by sexuality. The coming out process, the familial and societal relationships, fear of disclosure, masks and alternative identities, and a sense of place, all feature in the novel. Because in a very real sense this is both a work of fiction and a work of nonfiction, the boundaries blur. Gardell’s Stockholm is the real one of the 1980s, the one that he experienced himself. The nightclubs such as Confetti existed, the cruising spots are detailed as though that knowledge was in danger of passing out of memory, and a map of sexual alterity if offered to the reader if they wish to follow it. Literature has long provided such mapping, so Gardell’s work is hardly unique in that regard, but the result of its inclusion is the reader is able to move from contemporary Stockholm to the locations (many of which have been lost or redeveloped) where queer culture developed in the 1980s. Some of the work of the historian in recovering that is, at least, done for us by the novelist – one reason to lament the lack of English translation.

I mentioned at the outset the television adaptation which appeared a few years ago. The novel was published around the same time but there is one detail adds to the strong relationship between the printed word and the televised one in this instance. Back in 1989, Gardell had a television play broadcast on Swedish television called Ömheten (The Tenderness), which presents a slightly different version of Rasmus’s death from AIDS. We gain a slightly different insight into Benjamin and Rasmus’s relationship, and that with Rasmus’s parents, but nevertheless it is absolutely clear that these are the same characters present in the novel and in the later television series. Although all three can be treated discretely, in the end I think the television play and its expansion into a novel and further contraction into a three-part television series can only be understood properly as a single work. There are some differences, however. Because the main focus in Ömheten is on Rasmus, faith and religion are almost entirely absent, and this alters the dynamics of the piece somewhat. Absent Benjamin’s struggle with his faith – his Christian existential moment, if you will – we see a different form of prejudice, namely social antagonism to homosexuality. ‘You must understand’, pleads Rasmus’s father when he insists Benjamin must not go to the funeral, ‘we’re okay with it, but others aren’t. We don’t want it [the funeral] becoming a queer spectacle’.

Never Wipe Tears Without Gloves is a powerful novel, for any reader, and has particular resonance for those who have had to grapple with faith as well as sexuality. I read the books as if they are a kind of parable on modern-day tolerance, forgiveness, and accommodation of difference in ways that can be applied to other forms of discrimination not just that based on sexual orientation. Ultimately, the lessons of the 1980s were learned differently in Sweden (and the rest of Scandinavia) compared to Britain. Whereas in Britain Section 28 imposed censorship and lack of understanding, Sweden moved in the opposite direction. That same year, same-sex couples were afforded the same rights of ‘common law marriage’ as heterosexual couples, in 1995 this became (to use more recent terminology) civil partnerships. This was after Denmark and Norway, but several years before the same rights emerged in Britain. In a recent interview with Owen Jones, Ian McKellan remarked that it was the AIDS crisis that finally forced straight people to come to terms with homosexual life and in so doing came to realise that things weren’t necessarily all that different. But then between 1982 and 2002, Sweden was governed by the Social Democrats for all but three years. In Britain, the Labour Party held office for just five years in the same period of time. That may be too neat a delineation, indeed it almost certainly is, but the advances in rights for minorities, at least in this field, tends to come from the Left.

How might we conclude, then? Taken as a work of fiction, Gardell’s novel is a remarkable study in the complex relationship between sexuality, faith, institutional religion, and social practice. It is rooted in the broad European tradition of existential literature taking cues both from secular existentialism via Camus and from Christian existentialism via Kierkegaard. The kernels of reference to the Book of Revelation are enough to place it in a slightly different tradition, too, although to fully explore that requires someone more knowledgeable about that aspect of literature and theology than I. The novel can also be read as a quasi-fictionalised reality, as a form of history revealing to Swedes elements of their own recent past that might easily have been forgotten or simply unknown in the first place. It succeeds as both. My final thought is simply this: someone once said that as a minority – any minority – it’s vital to know our own past because no-one else will tell us about it.

 

Postscript:

The above is a sort of work in progress. The second element of the envisaged essay is a weaving into the discussion John Sam Jones’s Crawling Through Thorns which merits comparison with Gardell’s work. There is also more to be done in teasing out of Never Wipe Tears the various influences, some of which I’ve speculated on above (hopefully with some accuracy).

Advertisements