Where Words Fail: An Intimate Encounter With Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer

Sweden claimed the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature for one of its own. But a visit to the home of Tomas Tranströmer finds a complex road to communication, as the ageing poet relies on a few spoken words and gestures, his wife's aid -- and, of cou


STOCKHOLM – It's early winter, and under a sky of lacy clouds, Rinkeby confirms its reputation as a modest suburb, dully planned, with banal architecture. Located just 10 kilometers from downtown Stockholm, this town has nearly 15,000 residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are foreign or the children of immigrants. Shades of Babel – several dozen different languages are spoken in Rinkeby besides Swedish, it's said maybe even 100: an approximate number, unverifiable but symbolic. The argot born in the late 20th century on the outskirts of Swedish cities like Stockholm, Malmö, Göteborg is called Rinkebysvenska ("Rinkeby Swedish") or förortssvenska ("suburban Swedish").

On this mid-December day, the Rinkeby town library has an astonishing event on its program, one that has been scheduled regularly for the past 20 years. A few days after the Nobel prize for literature is handed out, the laureate is received at the library by the students of a nearby school. The exchange -- an easy-going blend of Christmas spirit, social action and poetry -- is as unexpected as it is gripping, even for the most cynical members of the audience.

In front of this year's laureate, Tomas Tranströmer, relaxed and sometimes mischievous teens recite, embroider on and illustrate texts by the author that have been chosen especially for the occasion. There's a lot of laughter. Sitting in the first row, silent – a stroke suffered in 1990 has left Tranströmer with limited ability to speak -- cheerful, the poet is savoring every minute of it.

As night falls, I think of a poem his wife Monica recited at the Nobel ceremony just four days earlier: "Tired of all who come with words, words but no language…" (From "March "79," The Wild Square, 1983). What coursed between the poet deprived of words and Rinkeby's polyglot young people was language. In fact, the next day as I head for the interview that Tranströmer has agreed to grant me at his home, I'm afraid of being far less gifted at it then the school kids from the Stockholm suburb.

Nobody seems much concerned, though. That morning, Tranströmer's publisher, Eva Bonnier, also tells me not to worry – and stresses how important this 2011 Nobel prize is for Swedes, "a national pride." The reward makes up in part for the controversy stirred in 1974 when the prize went to Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, two members of the Swedish Academy.

"Tomas has been very popular for a long time," Bonnier says with a smile at stating the obvious, "and he's our best-known poet outside Sweden." Tranströmer's work has been translated into 54 languages. His last collections have been published in editions of 20,000 on average, 70,000 for the standard edition of the complete works and 100,000 for pocket size. The numbers speak for themselves.

Every detail

At 3:30 p.m., the light is fading in a still snowless Stockholm. Monica Tranströmer had asked me to show up mid-afternoon, when her husband feels best. The Tranströmers' cozy little apartment is on a hilly street. The poet is not in a wheel chair today. He moves with difficulty, leaning on a cane, and is clearly amused by my presence, and probably by my awkwardness. He can only say a few words, like mycket bra, "very good." He has a way of speaking -- modulating certain intonations, varying the intensity -- all his own. Sitting near him, his wife Monica interprets. Or more precisely she dialogues, suggesting replies to her husband who approves them – or not, and always energetically. It rapidly becomes evident that nothing escapes Tomas Tranströmer, and that every detail counts.

Monica makes several attempts at relaying certain things her husband wishes to express, saying she's not sure. When something is entirely unclear to her she says so. "A couple of hours later, I'll suddenly get it -- or in the middle of the night," she says smiling. Her husband laughs with her.

Although sometimes disconcerting, the conversation is unusually clear. Often, Tomas Tranströmer shores up his answers by indicating passages from his poems. Pointing to the importance of certain French poets in his work, he mentions "Hommages' (Bells and Tracks, 1966): "Eluard touched some button and the wall opened and the garden showed itself." An "epiphany." It couldn't be a better description.

"At the time, this was his bedtime reading," says Monica Tranströmer, showing me an anthology by Erik Lindegren and Ilmar Laaban : 19 moderna franska poeter (19 Modern French Poets, 1948). Later on, after a reference to Dickens (and The Pickwick Papers), "Hommages' also mentions Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. I'm asked: "Is he still read in France?" A triumphant mycket bra meets my affirmative answer.

When he was younger, Tranströmer's goals were more oriented toward music, and a career as a pianist and composer. "It was only later that poetry took over." He undoubtedly held on to a way of arranging words like musical notes: "In fragments, from one piece to another, like a musician." Mentioned often, the musicality of the poet's phrases is evident, sometimes explicit even down to the titles of poems: "C Major," "Lamento," "Allegro," "Nocturne" (to mention only a few, from The Half-Finished Heaven, 1962). The musicality blossoms in quick rhythms, in the intimate pieces but also in the long symphonic works like Baltics (1974). But the sonorities remain concrete, based on a look or a reality turned into a poem.

As a young psychology graduate, Tomas Tranströmer worked first at a psychotechnical institution, then in a prison, with young delinquents. Although the arrangement got in the way of his writing regularly, and he would eventually move on to a half-time job to be able to write more, he now says that his work as a psychologist influenced his poetry. "At the time, when people asked me that question, I lied and invariably replied that it didn't," he says with a smile as his wife translates.

An accident

As a psychologist he couldn't reveal his sources, who were sometimes his patients. By way of example: a long poem "The Gallery" (The Truth Barrier, 1978), that took him ten years to write, is "full of those people and their stories." The text is a "demand for truth." A search. One word then another, thrown down on paper, macerated by time before a "very concrete" composition and sometimes several of them emerge.

The catalyst is "an image, an accident." The process is always the same, and has been since Tranströmer's earliest work. Thus, in "After An Attack" (Secrets on the Way, 1958): "The sick boy. Locked in a vision with his tongue stiff as a horn. He sits with his back turned to the picture of the cornfield."

Monica Tranströmer explains : "Tomas saw the boy when he was a young psychologist in Stockholm. There was a reproduction of a painting by Van Gogh behind him." With a mycket bra and a poem, the couple evoke other "accidents," other decisive events, at the heart of the poet's work. Among them are his friendship with American poet Robert Bly – readings, tours, translations of each other's poems, "obviously" these were an influence. Or the stroke that pushed him, from the 1990s, to opt for briefer forms such as the haikus of the past few years: "a necessity." More than that: "a possibility."

Nominated every year for the Nobel, Tranströmer wasn't setting a lot of stock in winning this year. "Our hope was that the prize would go to Adonis Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar," says Monica Tranströmer with a smile. "He's a friend, and a great poet." Her husband signals agreement and remembers with amusement the "circus' of journalists after he was announced the winner.

As our interview winds to a close, the couple animatedly recalls the previous day's meeting with the teenagers in Rinkeby. Very moved by it, they spent a long time at the little suburban library despite being tired from all the excitement of the past few weeks. Tomas Tranströmer says something about it that his wife doesn't get. He repeats it, mimes it, tries out words that he hasn't yet used that afternoon. To no avail. And this time he doesn't have a poem to fall back on that could explain what he means.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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