Author Q&A:
Andrzej Tichy

Wretchedness
(And Other Stories, £9.99 paperback, £6.99 ebook)

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A cellist in Malmö, Sweden, meets a junkie. “That could have been me.” His mind starts to glitch between his memories and the avant-garde music he loves, and he descends into his past, hearing a more chaotic soundtrack, of Europe’s housing projects, underground clubs and squat parties. Tichy was born in Prague but has lived in Sweden since 1981 and is the author of five novels, short stories, non-fiction and criticism. Wretchedness is about the victims of poverty and how its survivors have stayed vividly alive.

How was the idea for the novel born?
It was like it usually is when I write: a drawn-out process rather than an epiphany. I started writing the book during a period of my life when both I and many people around me were struggling to cope with various issues, which in many cases were connected to where we come from (our underclass/lower working class upbringing). Somehow that forced me to return to the themes in my first book. That was about socially excluded kids, about violence and loneliness – but also about friendship and the power of language and the imagination. Now I wanted to show these kids as young adults, how they lived with death constantly breathing down their necks.

The book’s structured on flashbacks and has a swirling, hallucinatory style. Did you set out to aim for an unconventional structure or was it driven by the characters and the story you wanted to tell?
I’m increasingly striving to get to something more conventional, more “easily comprehended”. But at the same time I’m firmly rooted in a narrative tradition predicated on the idea that conventional realism is one stylistic choice among many, rather than a neutral default position. While I was writing I just knew that this style and this structure was necessary to do justice to the story.

Cody and the other characters endured a grim, poverty-stricken existence in Sweden. Are you surprised it is still widely seen elsewhere as something of a social democratic haven?
This is a complicated question that really deserves a long answer, but simplifying slightly I’d say there are two dominant, diametrically opposed images of Sweden – one is what you’re referring to: an image, circulated for most of the 20th century, of Sweden’s then-dominant social democracy. The other image, in many ways a reaction to the first, has spread in recent decades – mainly in reactionary and populist circles – and portrays Sweden as a former paradise that’s been destroyed by immigration. Both of these images are false and manipulative. But it’s not surprising that they’ve gained the purchase they have. Swedish society is unique in many ways (200 years of peace, for instance), and so it’s easy for people to project their own ideas onto it.

Violence is an everyday part of the characters’ lives. It even seems to strengthen their bonds in their youth. Did you grow up so close to violence?
Yes, I did. Though then it was far from as serious as it is today. Guns were a real rarity, and drug dealing was on nowhere near the same scale as now. But it was absolutely part of everyday life, on many levels. There were many people around us living really difficult lives, many neglected children.

Cody recalls hanging round with a half-Polish guy and a Polish Gypsy “playing gangsta”. Has rap culture, so important in your book, supplied an international language of youth?
Yes, I think so. For me personally it wasn’t really like that. I think my generation was the last to not automatically associate the post-war suburbs with hip-hop – in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a lot of other stuff – reggae, punk, metal and so on – but gradually hip-hop took over. With good consequences and bad, I’d say.

With such international language, were you involved in a detailed way in the translation of the book into English?
I guess I was in some ways. Some of the characters in the book use slang that can seem cryptic to outsiders. That’s the whole point. I think many Swedish readers would struggle to understand some of the expressions. That’s why slang exists – to define membership in, and exclusion from, a community – that was what I wanted to portray. But it’s not easy to translate that kind of thing. As far as I can tell Nichola Smalley, my translator, did a brilliant job and the whole process was really informative for me, because I was forced to read my own text in a new way.

How are you adapting as a writer to coronavirus, both in terms of your working day and in your thoughts about future writing?
For me the situation has mostly meant cancelled trips and events, and the resulting lost income. At times I’ve also been at home with my kids who’ve not been able to go to school, but otherwise it hasn’t had such an impact so far.

I mostly just sit and read, write and listen to music alone in my office anyway – a kind of elective social distancing, I guess you could say. It’s hard to say what it will mean in the long run. Hopefully it will be a step on the way towards much-needed radical changes to our society, even though there’s little sign of that so far.

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