Michael Booth, "The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia"

New York 2014


Despite the fact that it was published in Poland by WUJ, the publishing house of the Jagiellonian University, Michael Booth’s book is by no means an academic disquisition, and it does not provide any scientific methods or a proper reference list. All footnotes have been provided by the translator – and are basically explanations and informational comments about Scandinavia. At first glance, the book may seem the academic publisher’s compromise for the sake of commercial success with readers who appreciate popular science but prefer its popular aspect. It may also be seen as an energetic “beggars-can’t-be-choosers” sort of effort to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the North. There is an undeniable need for Polish literature devoted to Scandinavia to be immediately updated and revived. What most public libraries and bookshops have to offer with regard to Scandinavian literature is basically popular crime fiction. The publication of Michael Booth’s book, meanwhile, seems to serve many purposes, as it describes all five Nordic countries: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden; it is worth noting that the English original was published only a year ago. Rather than beat around the bush, let me say simply that this is a very professional, well-thought-out and useful publication that’s completely free of the stigma of intellectual chicanery. The competent and faithful translation by Barbara Gutowska-Nowak deserves special praise.
Contemporary literary critics, especially those committed to literary genres, often face serious methodological problems, because authors tend to combine different styles. Some novelists have successfully imitated non-fiction stylistics; some biographies seem to be sociological documents and control tools for discourse analysis rather than anything else; some reportages have a certain “ethnographic” flavour. At the same time, however, cultural studies benefit from the blurred distinction between literary genres as more and more cultural attitudes, sources of information on alterity and essays devoted to cultural dialogue have emerged. Michael Booth is a British travel writer and journalist, who writes for newspapers and magazines including The Independent and Time Out– and The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a work of journalism of unquestionable anthropological and sociological value. Among recent representative works of the genre in Poland are books by Bartosz Jastrzębski and Jędrzej Morawiecki (Cztery zachodnie staruchy,Krasnojarsk zero). We can learn from Michael Booth’s book that he started a family in Denmark. From there he travelled via the Øresund and Malmö in Sweden to explore the other Nordic countries, the mid-Atlantic Iceland, and Sápmi (it is politically incorrect to refer to the region as Lapland).
I can see three things that makeThe Almost Nearly Perfect Peopleanthropological journalism. First, Michael Booth employs triangulation, or – to put it simply – many different perspectives; he seamlessly combines participant observation (of the Christmas celebrations in Denmark, the Crayfish Party in Sweden, the “open-air-living” in Norway, a trip to Santa Claus Village in Finland), heuristic interviews with Nordic politicians and social scientists, and the canon of Scandinavian studies (he has read the works of Richard Jenkins, Åke Daun, Richard D. Lewis, Jean Phillips-Martinsson, et al.). All this is spiced up with apt references to fiction, feature films and television series. Second, he is bold enough to carry out ethnomethodological experiments à la Harold Garfinkel, as he skilfully talks some Swedish passers-by into getting in a lift with him – to investigate the stereotypical Swedish apathy and reluctance to converse (which turn out to be true!). Third, the reader is left with the impression that Booth is not an aggressive, nosey reporter, but he is more like an anthropologist of the everyday, a tactful observer of human frailties; whenever he asks a Scandinavian person an uncomfortable question, he tellingly touches his camera, posing as a field researcher. Through combining these three elements, Booth digs beneath the surface and gets to the crux of the matter. He formulates a powerful hypothesis about each Nordic country: the Danish society relies on a hundred local and national associations, Sweden is a high-context culture characterised by voluntary collective restraint, Iceland suffers from being too Nordic – its strong, almost dense social ties, organised around its spectacular bankruptcy in 2008, have had a demoralising effect on the financial and the public sectors.
Michael Booth sums up the social history of Denmark by saying: “To reach this point of heightened bliss, the Danes have had to endure terrible trauma, humiliation, and loss. Until, that is, bacon came along and saved theirs.” I’m sure that such great minds as Norbert Elias, Jerzy Jedlicki and Grażyna Szelągowska would agree with this viewpoint, especially as they’ve also expressed it. The journalist Booth should be excused his audacity as – whether willingly or not – the book comes dangerously close to Tony Griffith’s risky approach presented inScandinavia: At War with Trolls: A Modern History from the Napoleonic Era to the Third Millennium (the footnote fails to explain that it was published in Poland asSkandynawia. Wojna z trollami. Historia, kultura, artyści od czasów Napoleona do Stiega Larssona, translated by Bożena Gadomska, Warszawa 2011). The approach I’m referring to involves the overuse of Scandinavian peculiarities, the irresponsible use of factoids (pieces of information believed to be true only because they have been published), and irony – bearing in mind that this has often been employed by Anglo-Saxon historians. In fact, the use of irony largely corresponds with the Scandinavian mentality and the resentments among the Nordic countries. In Sweden, Booth writes, “As you mingle before being called to the table, feel free to ask how much people earn, how long they were in education for, and make very clear your stance on how racist the Danes are, an attitude that will instantly endear you to your Swedish hosts.”
As the title Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia confirms, Michael Booth deals with the subject matter far more accurately thanScandinavia: At War with Trolls, and especiallyThe Xenophobe’s Guidebooks. What the book accentuates and aims to understand is the Nordic nations’ tendency to oscillate between two opposite poles: the liberal and the conservative parties criticising social absurdity and economic irrationality, and the leftist parties praising the tax system and increased sexual liberation. This aspect of the book will prove very interesting to the Polish reader – just for a moment let us forget that Booth is an English ironist – because Poland has witnessed a similar polarity of opinions, not to say, a conflict between utopia and dystopia. Popular crime novels make you think that Sweden is a hotbed of crime and moral pathology, a hub for transnational crime, whereas, according to travel magazines, Scandinavian public spaces are extremely safe. Scandinavia’s progressive tax systems have been favoured by some in electoral campaigns to the Sejm, and at the same time Dariusz Gajewski’s film Obce niebo (Strange Heaven) – the story of a family of Polish immigrants whose child is unfairly taken away by Swedish social workers – has premiered. Despite the “based on a true story” tag, the film presents a biased viewpoint and is largely exaggerated. Endowed with an adventurous streak, Michael Booth carefully avoids overstatement and delivers prudent judgements: good and bad things alike can be said about the efficiency of the Scandinavian healthcare system or institutions of social protection. The writer substantiates this point by referring to his own experiences, for example, the refusal by an A&E unit to admit his child with an eye injury.
Sometimes the Nordic paradise is more useful to continental Europeans than it is to the Vikings transformed into peasants.

Włodzimierz Pessel

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka