Monday, June 6, 2011

Millennium : #1 The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Picked the Millennium trilogy #1 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson up at the 3rd National book fair here and oh my God I can't believe I didn't read it sooner. Although my soul intention was to read the book before the movie starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara comes out and its an adult fiction but it was a brilliant piece of writing.

Here is how the summary goes like:

A publishing sensation across Europe—two million copies sold and months at the top of best-seller lists. A spellbinding amalgam of murder mystery, family saga, love story, and financial intrigue. It’s about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden . . . and about her octogenarian uncle, Henrik, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder. And it’s about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired by Henrik to get to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance . . . and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old, pierced, tattooed genius hacker, possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age—and a terrifying capacity for ruthlessness—who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a vein of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, an astonishing corruption at the highest echelon of Swedish industrialism—and a surprising connection between themselves. A contagiously exciting, stunningly intelligent novel about society at its most hidden, and about the intimate lives of a brilliantly realized cast of characters, all of whom must face the darker aspects of their world and of their own lives.

As The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens, cutting-edge journalist, Mikael Blomkvist has just taken a massive professional hit, losing a court case, facing jail time and a fine; and possibly watching his beloved Millennium magazine go under. When he receives an offer to investigate a thirty-year-old murder, he reluctantly agrees, thinking that the money and time out of the limelight might help him recoup his losses - plus, Henrik Vanger, his benefactor, promises him assistance in bringing down the same corrupt financier who landed him in this mess in the first place.

Meanwhile, off-the-grid, anti-social computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who ran Blomkvist's background check, is running some investigations of her own. Eventually, the two of them, Blomkvist and Salander will cross paths and agree to join forces, becoming one of the more unusual crime-fighting teams out there. As their research deepens, the information that they turn up becomes increasingly horrific, and it soon becomes apparent that this thirty-year-old murder or disappearance is far from irrelevant - and someone will stop at nothing to keep them from finding out what really happened.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has two story lines. The first is the mystery of Harriet Vanger; the second is that of financial intrigue and fraud involving a huge Swedish corporation. Stieg Larsson melds these two plots through the characters of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.

Now if someone called me to read a book focusing upon Swedish Nazis who entertained pederasty, incest, rape, kidnapping, murder - and serial acts of all of the above - I would likely have declined. This book is about those topics, and has been a resounding success - so I joined the ranks and pulled the book off the shelves. Intrigue is always formulaic for a best seller. Intrigue meshing the above-named sexual promiscuities will either compound or defeat the success. In this case, the lack of detail on the topic of the sexual conduct, I believe, is how the reader can withstand the topic without abhorrent reaction.

Though Stieg Larsson sadly passed away before the publication of his novels, the popularity of them in the wake of his death has shone further light on his political convictions, most of which are also present as themes within "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." The original Swedish title of the book is "Men Who Hate Women," and the author is quite merciless in tearing apart the preconceptions of Sweden as an enlightened, liberal country and exposing a more corrupt, violent underbelly.

It is the odd friendship forged between Mikael and Lisbeth that makes up the emotional center of the novel, as the two slowly learn to trust each other, depend on each other's skills, and finally bring the truth to light in a fairly harrowing climax. It's an engaging basis for a story, and is enough to hook any reader into completing the entirety of the novel, but often its execution is somewhat flawed.

Although the disappearance of Harriet is the crux of the novel, there is a vast array of other plots and storylines that make up the bulk of the book - swathes of exposition on rather irrelevant issues, complex backstories for people who are tangential to the plot, and some rather questionable decisions in pacing and characterization.

The biggest mistake is probably the fact that after the mystery of Harriet is solved, the book continues on at length in regards to the score Mikael has to settle with Wennerstrom, the latter being a character we never meet and who encompasses a storyline that has no real emotional weight to it, especially after the watershed of the Harriet-plot. It's like two books have been squished into one. In this respect, there's simply too much going on in a novel that contains a lot of excess padding (I could have happily done without the insight into Mikael's love life considering that practically every woman who crosses his path wants to sleep with him, and none of it adds anything to the plot).

Mikael uncovers a clue in a photograph that I refuse to believe the diligent police-investigator didn't pick up for himself, and I saw the twist concerning the numbers that Harriet had written in her notebook coming a mile away (if movies have taught me anything, it's that if faced with a series of obscure numbers, one should simply reach for the Bible). Finally, the ultimate fate of the killer is immensely unsatisfying. To avoid spoilers I'll just leave it at that, but readers will know what I mean.

Many of the book's detractors point to the sexual violence of the novel as excessive and sadistic. Well, I am a very queasy person when it comes to this subject (I flat out cannot watch the depiction of rape on television), but I was not particularly disturbed by what I read here. Naturally everyone has a different threshold of tolerance when it comes to this sort of thing, but for what it's worth, I found it relatively easy to stomach. There is nothing gratuitous or titillating about Larsson's treatment of the subject; in fact, I was interested to discover that this aspect of the novel was inspired by the fact that Larsson was once witness to the gang-rape of a young woman, leaving him with continual feelings of guilt that he did not/was unable to help her. 

It seems inevitable then that a character like Lisbeth Salander would be born out of this experience, and Larsson even goes so far as to name her after the original rape victim. Unfortunately, this leads to another trip-up, probably the most glaring of the entire novel. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Lisbeth is raped (by her legal guardian appointed by the state, no less) but Larsson completely glosses over the emotional trauma sustained by rape victims to a rather jaw-dropping degree. Lisbeth is completely calm and self-assured as she meticulously plots her retribution, making the whole thing little more than a revenge-fantasy. Larsson appears to try and cover for this towards the end of the novel by insinuating that Lisbeth has Asperger's syndrome, but since this is also brought up only to be ignored, it becomes just as irrelevant as the rape itself.

With that in mind, the central theme of the novel is almost ludicrously simplistic: rapists, religious fanaticism and Nazis are bad. Perhaps the reason I wasn't so bothered by the rape/violence was because it caters to a message that is hardly shocking or profound. Of course, it's easier to point out the flaws of a novel than the strengths, and ultimately - this is a strong novel. I found Lisbeth to be a fascinating character, and the hunt for Harriet's killer kept me committed to seeing it through to the end.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a raw, visceral novel. Larsson’s matter-of-fact way of describing the violence (mostly of a sexual nature) made the acts more disturbing than had he been more dramatic. Readers who have experienced sexual assault in their lives may find this novel one to be avoided. On the other hand, Larsson’s character development is above reproach, and the sections which dealt with the convoluted financial plot were intense and engaging.
At last the one thing that was unsatisfying was the fact that the translated(in English) title of the book become "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" when the original Swedish title Män som hatar kvinnor translates to "Men Who Hate Women" - which is much more appropriate than the english title, regarding the context of the book. I recommend this international bestseller to all who eagerly sift new books for challenging intellectual crime thrillers, who luxuriate in immersing themselves in the ambience of a compellingly created world and memorable characters, who soak up financial and investigative minutiae as well as computer hacking tidbits, and who want to share Larsson's crusade against violence and racism.


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