In Imagined Future, Elder Care Comes At A Price

The Unit
By Ninni Holmqvist
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
Paperback, 272 pages
Other Press
List price: $14.95

Read An Excerpt

The Unit
Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit is the debut novel from accomplished Swedish short story writer and translator Ninni Holmqvist. hide caption

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In a society driven toward endless economic growth and constant progress, what is the value of those who have no compulsion to contribute? The hippies and the misfits, the childless and the off-the-grid, those who just want to lead a quiet life. Ninni Holmqvist has a dark vision of what could happen to these outsiders if a government suddenly decided they were disposable.

In Holmqvist's tense and dark novel The Unit, men and women who have decided not to reproduce, who work in nonessential fields like the arts and who are unmarried, are labeled "dispensable." At the age of 50 for women, and 60 for men, they are rounded up and sent to The Unit.

Among them is Dorrit, a lonely writer who never wed or had children because she was in love with a married man. Dorrit and the others are well taken care of, fed and housed with plentiful leisure time and social activities. But they are also used as subjects for medical and psychological tests, and bits of them are harvested for transplantation — a cornea here, a kidney there — until someone needs their heart or lungs or liver.

The Unit reads almost as a delayed coming of age story; Dorritt blossoms in her new home and finally finds a way to open herself up to friends and a lover. It just so happens that this story is set against an ominous background, where her new friends disappear suddenly, and others show up at the breakfast table newly blind from cornea donations. The way Holmqvist blends Dorritt's awakening with dystopian dread is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's tales of budding romance and mysterious deaths.

It's a smart time, politically, for the release of The Unit. Everyone by now is familiar with the dark side of society's blind greed. Holmqvist is from Sweden and has certainly witnessed Europe's anxiety about its falling birthrates. Leaders ask their people — and sometimes bribe them — to have children for the good of the nation. It's probably no coincidence that her plot hinges on the characters' childlessness.

The Unit is no political screed, however. Instead of simply railing against societal expectations, Holmqvist uses a wide-angle lens. The employees who knowingly line up these men and women for their execution are not monsters out of a Nazi casting call. Nor are The Unit's tenants helpless victims. The novel does occasionally slip into heavy-handedness; at times the plot serves Holmqvist's thesis more than the story. But the humanity with which she writes her characters and the world of The Unit makes up for it. Echoing work by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, The Unit is as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.

Excerpt: 'The Unit'

The Unit
By Ninni Holmqvist
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
Paperback, 272 pages
Other Press
List price: $14.95

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren't hidden. There was one in each corner of the ceiling — small but perfectly visible — and in every corner and every hallway that wasn't visible from the ceiling; inside the closets, for example, and behind doors and protruding cabinets. Even under the bed and under the sink in the kitchenette. Anywhere a person might crawl in or curl up, there was a camera. Sometimes as you moved through a room they followed you with their one-eyed stare. A faint humming noise gave away the fact that at that particular moment someone on the surveillance team was paying close attention to what you were doing. Even the bathroom was monitored. There were no less than three cameras within that small space, two on the ceiling and one underneath the wash basin. This meticulous surveillance applied not only to the private apartments, but also to the communal areas. And of course nothing less was to be expected. It was not the intention that anyone should be able to take their own life or harm themselves in some other way. Not once you were here. You should have sorted that out beforehand, if you were thinking along those lines.

I was, for a while. I thought about hanging myself or jumping in front of a speeding train or doing a U-turn on the highway and driving towards the oncoming traffic at full speed. Or simply driving off the road. But I didn't have the courage. Instead I just obediently allowed myself to be picked up at the agreed time outside my house.

. . .

The first snowdrops had just appeared in my flowerbeds, which had been blazing with yellow winter aconite for several weeks now. It was a Saturday morning. I had lit the fire earlier. A transparent, quivering plume of smoke was still rising from the chimney as I stood waiting by the side of the road outside the gate. There wasn't a breath of wind, and the air was cold and clear.

The SUV was a metallic wine red, so shiny that it cast reflections of the sun as it slowly moved down the hill, through the village, and stopped in front of me. All the windows except the windshield and the front side windows were tinted black; apart from that the car was completely anonymous, no logo or sticker to reveal where it had come from or where it was going. The driver, a woman in a black quilted jacket, climbed out and greeted me with a nod and a friendly smile. She hoisted my large suitcase into the trunk and waved me into the back seat. I fastened my seat belt and placed my shoulder bag on my knee, my arms around it. The driver put the car in first gear, released the handbrake, and we moved off. There were only the two of us in the car. We didn't say anything to each other.

After a drive of about two hours, behind those windows that were so dark I would have found it difficult to follow our route even if I'd tried, or to work out in which direction I was being taken, we suddenly plunged downwards and the sound of the engine and the tires changed and became muted and echoing at the same time, as if we were traveling through a tunnel. First of all it became darker, then lighter on the other side of the windows, then the car stopped and the engine was switched off. The door by the back seat where I was sitting was opened from the outside. I saw a man's face and a woman's face. The woman's face was smiling, her mouth open, and she said:

"Hi there, Dorrit! You've arrived."

I got out of the car and saw that I was in a parking lot, an underground one by the look of things. The man and the woman were both dressed in green shirts the color of linden flowers, with the logo of the unit in white on the breast pocket — I recognized it from the information packet that had been sent to me at home a few months earlier. The man and woman introduced themselves as Dick and Henrietta. Henrietta added:

"We're your section orderlies."

She went around the car, opened the trunk, lifted out my suitcase and set off towards a row of elevators at one end of the parking lot where some fifty cars were parked, most of them ordinary family cars, SUVs and minibuses, but I also saw a couple of ambulances. Dick picked up my shoulder bag from the concrete floor where I'd put it while I shook hands. I would have preferred to carry it myself, as it contained my most private possessions, but he insisted and I didn't want to make a scene, so I shrugged my shoulders and let him take it. He gestured towards the elevators, so I followed Henrietta empty-handed with him directly behind me.

The elevator went up only one floor. When we got out, Dick said:

"We're on Level K1 now. That's the upper basement floor."

We walked along a wide corridor with red walls, ceiling and floor until we reached another row of elevators. We got into one of them, went up several floors, came out into something that looked like an ordinary stairwell with two doors that looked like ordinary apartment doors, one at each end. Dick, who had the least to carry of the two functionaries, went ahead and pushed open one of the doors labeled "Section H3", and held it open for me. I walked into an open common room of the kind that is usually found in hospital wards or student corridors, a lounge really. On a sofa in the corner sat a woman with red frizzy hair, just starting to turn gray, reading a magazine. In front of her on the table was a steaming cup of tea. Judging by the aroma, it was peppermint. The woman looked up, smiling.

"This is Majken," said Henrietta. "And this is Dorrit."

I managed to croak something that was supposed to be hello, and noticed that my mouth was completely dry.

"I live two doors along from you," said Majken. "If there's anything you're not sure about, or if you just want to talk — or not even that; if you want to be quiet in someone's company, or anything at all — then I'm either here or in my room for the next few hours. It says Majken Ohlsson on my door."

"Okay," I managed to get out.

She looked at me, her gaze steady. Her eyes were flecked with green.

"Don't hesitate," she added. "You mustn't feel you're disturbing me. We always have time for each other here."

From THE UNIT by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy. Copyright © 2006 by Ninni Holmqvist. Translation copyright © 2008 by Marlaine Delargy. Published by Other Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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