The March of the Musicians

Per Olov Enquist

translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate
Quartet Books 1993 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
The fat Emblad, with bladder problems, makes an unlikely labour agitator and when he turns up in 1903 in Bure, on the bleak northern coast of Sweden, he is soon set packing by the locals, who don't want anything to do with "them Stockholmers". But he makes a profound impression on a young boy of eight, Nicanor, even if mostly by appearing to eat earthworms.

Flash-forward to Nicanor's death in 1973, at 78, and the first-person narrator of The March of the Musicians, a friend of Nicanor's, inserts himself into the story. His occasional comments suggest it is a historical reconstruction and identify him as the author (both the location and several of the characters are drawn from Enquist's own childhood).

The bulk of the novel describes events between 1907 and 1910, episodes in the growth of a labour movement in unpromising soil. The Bure Independent Workers Association is definitely not, its founders aver, a union; extracts from the minutes of its meetings reveal workers prepared to defend their honour but reluctant to make demands or be "dogmatic". When an impromptu strike fails to get any concessions at all from the sawmill management, the Association disbands — and Nicanor writes to Emblad.

Emblad is not terribly successful as a Social Democratic party worker — his reports are never robustly positive enough — but he soldiers on and returns to Bure. And this time he has more success, though an attempt to push into the even more remote farming communities providing strike-breakers produces a bloody confrontation.

March of the Musicians is not a study of labour history, however, but a story of individuals. ("When the movement came, the movement was already there. One has to take into consideration the human beings who were actually, not theoretically, there.") There are some great characters: Emblad provides one perspective and the other central figures are Nicanor and his family. The terrible fate of uncle Aron offers the most powerful drama, but the more static portraits of his mother Josefina and father K.V. are also compelling. And there are cameos of some of the other workers and of Emblad's wife.

March of the Musicians also conveys something of the broader life of the community. Respect for authority and an all-permeating religion, a quietist but puritanical Lutheranism, are leavened by human compassion and a down-to-earth humour. We also get a brief history of the local football team, as well as a feel for place and landscape.

The structure, with occasional foreshadowing and authorial commentary, helps to provide some distance on what might otherwise be unfaceably bleak subject material. This doesn't stop us being caught up in the lives of its characters: March of the Musicians is moderately complex in its shifts and subtleties, but its complexity is subsumed in its story.

April 2012

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%T The March of the Musicians
%A Enquist, Per Olov
%M Swedish
%F Tate, Joan
%I Quartet Books
%D 1993 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0704301903
%P 256pp