Elliot Brandsma: Månadens Martinson juni 2022

Den tidigare Näbbeboda-stipendiaten, Martinson-forskaren Elliott Brandsma ger oss Månadens Martinson i juni 2022.

When There’s No Place Left to Go:
Reading Martinson’s Aniara as a Call for Refuge

Ukrainska flyktingar på väg över gränsen till Polen, våren 2022. Foto: Міністерство внутрішніх справ України (Wikimedia commons).

The images can be found across social media and news channels everywhere. Throngs of refugees scrambling into packed train cars, setting off toward an uncertain fate. Thousands of tearful families hugging tightly before parting ways, unsure when—or if—they will be reunited. Fearful evacuees crossing checkpoints on foot to find shelter in unfamiliar lands, hoping to be granted safe passage. Media outlets have reported thousands of stories like these from Ukraine in recent months, as Russian military forces brutally lay siege to the country’s towns and territories. Over seven million Ukrainians in total have been forced from their homes as a result of this invasion, with five million having fled the country altogether. This heart-wrenching crisis, though unique in its historical significance, represents just one of many mass displacements caused by government regimes in recent decades. Syria, Afghanistan, Burma—refugee crises across the globe have become the norm for a world fueled by political ambition, where the desire for power and wealth so often eclipses concern for our common humanity.

This endless cycle of war and dislocation was not lost on the Swedish poet Harry Martinson. An orphan who came of age in the shadow of World War I and spent his childhood moving from one foster home to another, Martinson imbues many of his poems with reflections on abandonment and the hardships of displacement. He also joined his contemporaries in introducing modernist aesthetics to the Swedish reading public, aesthetics emphasized the anguish and isolation caused by both world wars—emotions all too familiar to the millions seeking refuge because of them. Even Martinson’s acclaimed venture into science fiction, Aniara, opens with a scene about the anxious uncertainties that refugees face on their quest to find sanctuary. In the book’s first lines, masses of evacuees shuffle onboard the spacecraft Aniara, fleeing their home planet Doris after nuclear war renders it uninhabitable. Shortly after launch, the asteroid Hondo knocks the ship off course, and the passengers, bound for the tundra of Mars, hurdle into space, barreling toward an ambiguous fate. 

By telling the story of the doomed planet Doris (a thinly veiled representation of the planet Earth), Martinson challenges his readers to envision an unsettling scenario. He foreshadows what might happen when humankind can no longer find refuge, on Earth or in the cosmos, due to its own self-destructive tendencies. With his perceptive insight, Martinson understood that, when the world falls into turmoil, literature can not only serve to indict the enduring failures of humankind but also offer a course correction, steering us in a redemptive direction. In fact, what lies behind Aniara’s fatalistic journey into the void is perhaps Martinson’s most urgent and poignant appeal for compassion. In Aniara, the poet uses his fictional civilization to depict the inevitable outcome of endless feuds and our disregard for the environment. As such, he implores his readers to resist these destructive agendas, shelter the displaced, and preserve the planet Earth—our solitary place of refuge within a cold, indifferent universe.

Having nowhere to go, no homeland to return to, the refugees onboard Aniara fall into predictable patterns of human behavior: they divide into factions, wage war with each other, indulge in life’s most frivolous passions, and look to the giant computer-like being Mima to kindle a sense of purpose and meaning within their lives. When Mima short circuits and her holographic projections of Doris can no longer offer diversion, Aniara’s passengers must confront the bleak reality that they will spend the rest of their existence on an aimless trajectory through space. Despair quickly sets in among them, their sense of terrestrial connection ebbing away, slowly and irrevocably. One by one, the passengers succumb to this dejection, and the consequences for fighting and destroying their planet begin to sink in. The all-encompassing void of space around them, in a way, becomes a metaphor for humanity’s self-destructive follies, signifying the emptiness of warfare and human striving. As the narrator notes in the poem’s final cantos, “space can never be crueler than man…more than its match is human callousness.”

As Aniara’s refugees resign to their fate, the speaker offers both a searing indictment and a humble warning for readers in the poem’s conclusion, drawing connections between our world and that of Doris. He laments how he “had meant to make…an Edenic” paradise for humankind among the plains of Doris, but, due to their selfish wars and nuclear ambitions, their “only home became the night of space…where no god” could hear them. Here, Martinson erases all hope that anything, even the divine, might rescue the wandering spaceship from its course, claiming that “the god whom” they “had hoped for to the end…sat wounded and profaned in Doric glens.” It was up to humankind to avoid this harrowing fate. During the poem’s final stanzas, the ship soars through the void for another 15,000 years, as a sort of “sarcophagus,” filled with bones and relics from Doris’s forgotten past. After their souls have been extinguished, “Nirvana’s currents” blow through the refugees’ dusty remains, their quest for safe passage eternally averted.

It is tempting to feel a sense of gloom and despair after setting this book down, or to dismiss Martinson as a nihilist. By reading between the poem’s lines, however, the opposite conclusion becomes apparent. Martinson writes Aniara not out of disillusionment, not out of disdain for humankind, but rather as a message, a call to advocate for peace and protect the millions seeking refuge within our fractured world. He does so by showing readers what happens when refuge runs out, when the Earth itself can no longer contain—and sustain—our most cynical and destructive agendas: the all-consuming void of “human callousness” awaits us.

When watching news clips and reading articles about Ukraine, Syria, or any other refugee crisis, similar feelings of fear, horror, powerlessness, and sorrow naturally arise. But in a harsh world, extending compassion for the most vulnerable, and responding to their cries for help, can disrupt even the most relentless cycles of conflict, and halt the most heinous machinations of human cruelty. On such a volatile planet, offering refuge, thus, becomes a radical and redemptive act. I like to think that Martinson understood that. The fate of Doris does not have to be the fate of our world. By practicing compassion, working toward peace, and providing refugees a place to go, we allow ourselves the hope that, even in the darkest moments, humanity can still turn its wayward ship around.  

Elliott Brandsma

Note: This essay draws from both English translations of Aniara, Leif Sjöberg and Stephen Klass’ 1999 edition (published by Story Line Press), as well as Elspeth Harley Schubert and Hugh Macdiarmid’s 1963 edition (published by Alfred Knopf).

About the author: Elliott Brandsma is a Ph.D. student and Harry Martinson researcher from the U.S. In 2019, he was one of six residents at Näbbeboda skola, Harry Martinson’s former grade school in Olofström. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he studies Scandinavian literature, Global Studies, and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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