1940 - Kallocain
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
1940. Germany invades Norway and Denmark. Denmark surrenders within six hours, while Norway attempts to hold out. Britain and France come to the Norwegians’ aid, and send a moderate expeditionary force, which manages to retake parts of Northern Norway. However, the Allied forces end up withdrawing from the campaign when Hitler ends his Phoney War with these countries and invades France and the Lowlands (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg).
The withdrawal from Norway and the invasion of France bring about the downfall of Neville Chamberlain who resigns as Prime Minister, and King George appoints Winston Churchill in his place. In his first address, Churchill tells the House of Commons: “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Things are looking grim. Italy stabs the Allies in the back and declares war. France falls within 46 days, (but not before allied forces are evacuated from Dunkirk), and Britain is forced to continue the fight on its own. London is blitzed, Coventry is leveled, and the United States, while mobilizing, is still unwilling to join the fray.
Meanwhile in Poland, the Nazis create the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and establish the Warsaw Ghetto. In neutral Sweden, Karin Boye watches everything with growing despair and writes Kallocain, a dystopian novel about an ideological chemist who discovers a truth drug.
Karin Boye (1900-1941) was a Swedish poet and novelist who got to witness first-hand Hitler’s takeover in Germany. Boye debuted with her first collection of poems, Clouds, in 1922, while studying at Uppsala university. She later founded the literary magazine, Spektrum, and used it to introduce T. S. Eliot and Surrealist writers to Swedish readers.
Boye’s life was a series of emotional challenges. She was a lesbian who was raised in a very Christian environment, and this resulted in some very difficult identity crises that she explores in her book, Kris (1934). In 1929, she married Leif Björck, in what may have been a marriage of convenience. She later divorced him in 1932. Boye then spent a brief period in Berlin between 1932-1933, and while there she met Margot Hanel, whom she lived with for the rest of her life. In 1941, Boye overdosed on sleeping pills. She was found curled up at a boulder on a hill overlooking the locality of Alingsås. The boulder is now a memorial stone. In 1983, a literary association dedicated to her work was created with the goal of keeping it alive by spreading it to new readers.
In Sweden, Boye is best known for her poetry, which is very personal and tends to focus on the author’s journey for symbolic fulfillment, which can only be reached through anguish and pain. Abstract concepts like truth or love are explored as defenses against the pain of the actual world. Internationally, Boye is famous for Kallocain, the only literary work she ever wrote with zero autobiographical elements.
The book is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of Dr. Leo Kall, a fellow-soldier who serves the dystopian World State as a chemist in an unknown future. Life in the World State is strictly controlled and regulated. All citizens are fellow soldiers who need to be constantly monitored. Privacy is a sign of individuality, and therefore forbidden – even in the bedroom. Children are taken from their parents at a very early age to be educated, and while they can visit, eventually they will graduate and be transferred to a city where they can best serve the World State in whatever function is needed. All fellow soldiers are required to periodically do shifts doing military duty or police duty, and this work takes precedence over all other responsibilities.
In the World State, the only ideas fellow soldiers are allowed to express are those approved by the Ministry of Propaganda. Any idea, which is not approved should not be uttered, and better yet not even be conceived in the first place. Even good intentions can have negative effect on morale, and anyone who steps out of line is required, in the best case scenario, to publicly apologize over the radio. This all changes when Kall invents a new drug, Kallocain, which compels people to tell the truth and reveal their innermost thoughts, even those of which they are not consciously aware. The drug is initially injected into No. 135, a test person sent from the Volunteer Sacrificial Service, who confesses to hating his job, a sentiment which Kall finds extremely disturbing as all fellow soldiers are supposed to love their job. Further tests, reveal that there are many other fellow soldiers who share similar sentiments, or harbor thoughts not approved by the Ministry of Propaganda, and Kall is forced to acknowledge that many people are not exactly what they seem, which shakes his faith in those who are closest to him.
I enjoyed this book. Unlike other dystopias I read, the book is less a criticism of the World State, and the Nazi society it references, and more a cold horror story that explores the themes of trust, individuality, and meaning on a very personal level. This is the story of Leo Kall and his journey of self-discovery through the drug which he invented, a drug that violates the very being of those he injects it into. On top of that, his victims are forced to remember in detail everything they say and come to terms with their new self-knowledge in a society that has zero tolerance for what they were compelled to reveal. As a reader, I found myself connecting with Kall, even as I was horrified by his actions, and sympathizing with his victims, who are struggling to be what the World State expects of them. The book was both disturbing and moving, and I strongly recommend giving it a read.
The Omer today is grandeur in foundation. There are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, when the foundation is pretty horribly evil, as seen in Nazi Germany and the World State, the grandeur is non-existent. What is there to admire in societies that coldly destroy anything which is different? On the other hand, you can argue that these highly complex, rigidly controlled, societies, in which everyone knows their place, there is a different twisted sort of grandeur worthy of admiration. We are supposed to admire these societies and their accomplishments even as we are repulsed by the methods they adopt to enforce conformity. I do not subscribe to this view. There was nothing worthy of admiration in Nazi Germany and there is no twisted grandeur to be coldly admired from a distance of over seventy years. Nazi Germany was horrible, and that will also be the case with any version of Boye’s World State. Being rightfully disturbed by the horrors the Nazis and the World State wrought does not mean there was a twisted grandeur to their madness, just that it was madness!
If you’re looking for grandeur in foundation, skip ahead a few days and a few years, and look at the state of Israel which in a relatively short period of time became a global power with a thriving democracy, and home to most of the world’s Jews. Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, managed to forge a national identity, without excluding those who were already here and did not conform to the new ethos being envisioned. And the result is a society in which Jews of all stripes, as well as Israeli-arabs, Druze and Bedouins can live together in mostly harmony. This is the grandeur that came about from the foundation of Israel, and I for one am glad I was born in this generation to witness it.