Interview: Per Wästberg

An interview with the author and chairman of the Nobel literature committee Per Wästberg, discussing his book The Journey of Anders Sparrman, the Nobel prize, and the future of literature. First published in Prospect, July 2010

On 17th January 1773, the two ships of Captain James Cook’s second expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle—the first time in history that Europeans had done so. Among the passengers on Cook’s own ship, HMS Resolution, was the Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman: ten days later, Sparrman recorded seeing in the sky the “blazing and radiance” of the aurora australis, the southern lights. “Probably never since the day of Creation until now,” recorded Sparrman in awe, had these “appeared before the eyes of a European.”

It was, however, more than the desire to witness new sights that drew men like Cook and Sparrman to the extremities of the known world. Children of the Enlightenment, they were also measurers and recorders. Cook’s three voyages would debunk the long-held myth of a fertile “southern continent,” Terra Australis, as well as mapping (and laying claim to) many Pacific islands for the first time. In addition to Sparrman, a distinguished handful of scientists and artists travelled with Cook: astronomer, William Wales, the naturalists Johann Reinhold Forster and his son, George, and the expedition’s official draughtsman, William Hodges, each seeking to expand the frontiers of European knowledge. The world was a book of wonders which they would, for the first time, translate and classify.

Translation is a central concern for the Swedish author Per Wästberg—trim and softly-spoken at 76—with whom I am sitting on a mild afternoon above a Soho street. We are discussing the English translation of his latest book, a fictionalised biography of Anders Sparrman that appeared in England in April, and this means beginning with Wästberg himself. Chairman of the Nobel committee for literature, author of over 50 books, a prolific polemicist and former editor of Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Wästberg has been waiting most of his life to tell Sparrman’s story. “At a very early age, I came across Sparrman’s account of his journey around the Cape of Good Hope and around the world with Cook—and I found him humorous and outspoken and readable in a way that surprised me. Then I came to Africa myself on a Rotary Foundation scholarship for a year, when I was 25, in 1959—just the same age as Anders Sparrman was when he arrived in South Africa.” Much as Sparrman’s travels would transform his life, Wästberg’s encounter with Africa came to define his.

A “neutral, innocent Swede” (although hardly unworldly: he had written his first national newspaper column at the age of 12 and published his first novel at the age of 15), Wästberg had come to Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—to study African literature. Soon, though, he found himself writing for the Scandinavian press about the endemic racism he saw. This was “translated to the government in Rhodesia, and I was asked to leave.” Rather than returning home, he headed to South Africa, where his only literary contact—Nadine Gordimer, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1991—granted him an interview. Through Gordimer, Wästberg met most of the then-non-prohibited ANC. He travelled around South Africa, writing about townships, factories and farms until “the South African police caught up with me, I was denounced by the foreign minister in parliament, and I was put on a plane to Congo.” There, he promptly met Patrice Lumumba, the man who would become the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo when it gained independence in 1960.

Thus began decades of political activism: Wästberg founded the Swedish arm of Amnesty in 1963, became president of Swedish Pen in 1967 and Pen’s international president in 1979, worked at the international defence and aid fund for South Africa, and was one of the world’s most influential campaigners against apartheid. Literature never vanished from view, however. Despite his travels and extradition, the young Wästberg went on both to complete his doctorate on African writing (“when I presented my thesis, my professor at the University of Uppsala said: ‘I have never heard of any of these people, you could have made them up’”) and, in 1961, to compile the first anthology of African literature ever to appear outside of Africa, Afrika berättar (“Africa tells”).

It’s difficult, today, to understand just how great the challenges of putting together a book like Afrika berättar were. In 1961, barely a generation of African literature existed, and it was entirely unknown abroad. A silence hung over the continent: two centuries after Cook and Sparrman, Europeans were still speaking on behalf of those places they had colonised. Yet, as Wästberg realised, literature was a part of the colonial legacy that could be turned back upon the countries of its birth. “Only with the Christian, white missionaries did Africans realise they were individuals, not part of a tribe, a family—only then, when they were taught that you are a unique individual in the face of God, did they realise that you had your own individual life and experience.” Despite its inevitably political content, moreover, this young literature was doing something beyond politics—reconfiguring notions of identity, and entering Africa for the first time into dialogue with those civilisations for which it had for so long simply been a mute, other place.

The man we encounter in The Journey of Anders Sparrman is, in his own way, both an author and an activist—and a spirit out of temper with his times. Born in 1748, in 1772 Sparrman travelled to South Africa, joining Cook’s expedition from there. He returned to Sweden in 1776 and, after making one further expedition in 1787, worked in medicine for the rest of his life, dying in poverty in 1820. These are the bare bones onto which Wästberg fleshes his tale, and the result is a remarkable blend of quotation, historical record, interpretation and invention. It’s also an opportunity to rediscover an 18th-century eyewitness account of colonialism whose outrage can feel shockingly contemporary. “I think it is my duty to show how much the world has been misled,” wrote Sparrman in South Africa in 1775, determined to dismantle the European myths that surrounded the “savages.” A year later, his conclusion about the nature of the colonial experience was unambiguous: “there can be no true amity until the country is ruled by its own inhabitants.”

Wästberg weaves Sparrman’s own words into fine descriptions of landscape and character: the bitter, homesick Dutch governor of Cape Town; the rational genius of Captain Cook, diverting his men’s fears into careful routines; the unearthly wasteland of the frozen Southern Ocean. Back in Sweden, with Sparrman’s travels ended, the anchoring facts become fewer and the tone shifts towards internal monologue, exploring the unexpected joy of Sparrman’s late marriage to a younger woman.

The defining characteristic that drew Wästberg to Sparrman was, he explains, his willingness to treat everyone he met, black and white, as fully human: “his colleagues noticed and scribbled down everything, all the Latin names, but never saw the human beings around them.” Sparrman did. Unlike his biographer, however, Sparrman enjoyed little success in translating his convictions into action: his attempts to evangelise against slavery were unsuccessful, his compassionate treatment of the poor largely futile thanks to the ineffectiveness of 18th-century medicine. Indeed, he had almost vanished from historical consciousness until Wästberg’s book appeared.

“I think what compelled Sparrman to write,” Wästberg argues, “was this holy feeling of being first on the spot: of having unique access to something that might have cost his life, and scribbling it down—for the future.” This “holy feeling” also comes close to Wästberg’s sense of what is most valuable in literature: its uniqueness, its extension of what it is possible to think and say. It’s a process that has its analogies with exploration—and a keen awareness of the barriers between cultures and languages informs Wästberg’s perspective on the Nobel prize, which serves not only as the world’s most prestigious literary award, but also one of its great engines of translation. To win a Nobel is automatically to gain a truly global readership. Yet Wästberg is also quick to confess the Nobel’s own brand of insularity. “We have our great limitations as a committee. We are a few people subjected to our own tradition, reading and tastes, who try to pinpoint among many valuable writers somebody who is a favourite, writing perhaps in a new tone of language. But I think there are writers who are untranslateable. There are Arab, Indian, Pakistani writers who may be great in their own language, but it seems impossible to get their kind of originality across.”

And so we come to Wästberg’s ambivalence over the dominance of English as a global language. On the one hand, the world has never been more interconnected linguistically. On the other hand, “you can never abandon a language you have grown up in with all its nuances. I see this in Brussels, with the Swedish parliamentarians in the European Union. They think they speak English so wonderfully, but they are rather awkward, and miss nuances: they are allowed to speak their own language, but they do not.” Translation means more than carrying meaning across languages, just as literature means more than just writing.

What, then, of literature’s future in a world suffused with both words and rival media? “Literature is certainly undervalued, and it has less attention today. There will always be people for whom literature is a necessary bread, the lifeblood of intellect and emotion. But I think it will shrink.”

There remains, though, that “holy feeling”—the translation of experience into a common fund of language so that, 190 years after his death, the half-forgotten writings of a Swedish naturalist can become part of man’s continuing wrestle with words and meanings. “When I write,” Wästberg says, “I am aiming to be strong in language. Everything must be rewritten tens of times to have this effect. One is free to write about anything. It all depends how well it is written.”