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The current political climate in the United States may be responsible, or it may be pure coincidence, but there is a lot of dystopic fiction around these days. As well, the success of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE perhaps factored into Other Press's happy decision to re-issue Ninni Holmqvist's woman-centred THE UNIT, which originally appeared in Swedish in 2006. Taken together, the two books cast a revealing light on the sort of nightmares that haunt the imaginations of the authors' respective cultures.
The Unit, the facility to which Dorrit Weger has been transported, sounds like the actualisation of all the promises that senior living complexes make in their full-page ads but never quite realize. Gourmet meals, high-end exercise facilities, libraries, on-site medical staff, private studio apartments, designer shops - it's all there. And better yet, it's all free. Well, not quite. The residents are not free to leave. There are no windows to the outside world. Inmates are required to participate in various drug trials and scientific studies, many of which may leave them impaired or disfigured. Worse, periodically they will have to donate an organ or two - a kidney here, a cornea there - until one day, their usefulness to science and commerce exhausted, they make a "final donation" - of a heart, a liver, a pair of lungs, and anything else still serviceable enough to pass on.
Like everyone else in residence, Dorrit has not volunteered to enter the Unit. She lives in a Sweden in which a certain class of citizen deemed "dispensable" - those who lack others dependent on their care or who have no close relationships at all - must spend whatever life remains to them in a Unit. But this is not simply a measure for rationalizing the care of the very old; they are sent off in early middle-age, women at fifty, men at sixty, and their prospects are dim indeed. So THE UNIT does not include anything like a Soylent Green reveal. Everyone politely collected in the month they turn 50 or 60 knows what their future will hold and all appear to go quietly, without complaint.
In effect, the "dispensables" are unmarried and childless, though those caring for an aged parent are exempt. Men get an extra ten years of freedom since they might father a child in that time. But male or female, the life expectancy following entrance appears to be about two to three years.
What Dorrit does discover after she enters the facility, however, is a surprise. As a not especially successful writer, she's been living on a limited income for years. Now she can indulge a certain taste for minor luxury, especially for food. There are designer clothes on hand for the asking, and enough privacy to permit her to at least think of finishing her book.
More surprising is that she finds what she has lacked all along, a sense of community, the beginnings of real friendships. Ironically, had she had these earlier, she might have evaded the Unit in the first place. But she has them now and she treasures them. She even embarks on a love affair with a man that proves to be the most fulfilling of her life.
Of course, looming over all this is the inevitable prospect of the required "donations," a marvellously inappropriate word for gifts which are supposed to be freely made. Nor can any of the new relationships last. One day a dear friend will appear seriously diminished, or worse, fail to appear at all.
Through it all, no one objects. No one cries out. No one rebels. To spare their friends unnecessary pain, those destined for their final visit to the operating theatre in the morning rarely mention it to anyone. The staff is tactful and professionally sympathetic. A cool, rational stoicism prevails.
All this is, of course, very different from A HANDMAID'S TALE. There, the repressive, Biblically- inspired regime was born in armed revolution and if it falls, will fall to violent revolt. The Unit, on the other hand, is the product of a referendum, held when Dorrit was young, in response to a social need that the author does not make altogether plain. In accepting the terms of that social contract, the inmates of the Unit appear to feel that they are repaying a social debt. Dorrit, for example, reflects that she had followed her feminist mother's advice to remain child-free, to live her own life and not to live, as her mother had, for family. She does not regret it, even though that choice had made her "dispensable."
Yet, no matter how calm, how accepting, how stoical Dorrit remains, her account of her life is unbearably moving. The prose is simple, but direct and unflinching and it unsparingly engages the reader. Dorrit may accept her fate but the reader wants her to live, especially as the suspicion grows that she is less being sacrificed to a notion of the greater good than to the demands of commerce and Big Pharma. If HANDMAID'S TALE is an admonition about the dangers of selfish passion masquerading as evangelical zeal, THE UNIT is, in its way, equally cautionary, if cooler. It is not, however, any less terrifying in its own quiet way.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2017
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