Kurdo Baksi is 45 now, and taking better care of his health than in his youth, eating his vegetables, exercising, even quitting smoking. It’s the sort of thing you do when one of your closest friends—a 60-cigarettes, 20-cups-of-coffee-a-day man—drops dead of a heart attack at age 50. The death of Stieg Larsson in 2004, just as the publishing phenomenon known as the Millennium trilogy—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its successors—began building steam, also provoked another response in Baksi.
The Kurdish-born Swedish author and anti-racism activist decided to write Stieg Larsson, My Friend.
The new book is Baksi’s attempt to capture for the record Larsson as he was when they campaigned together for racial equality, long before Larsson’s novels sold 23 million copies worldwide, including one million in Canada. My Friend is eye-opening for any foreigner who still thinks of Sweden as a sublimely tolerant, feminist-ruled egalitarian state, and contentious at home, where Baksi is not the only one of Larsson’s intimates to lay claim to his legacy, or to a piece of a posthumous fortune worth $50 million. (So far: that’s just the print profits to date. The Swedish-language film versions have generated over $160 million in worldwide box office—even though the third has yet to be released in North America—with the Hollywood remakes still to come. In December, Penguin Canada will issue a $110 boxed set of the novels plus On Stieg Larsson, a volume of commentary.)
Sweden, Baksi recalls in an interview, was “not the paradise I had been dreaming about” when he arrived there as a 14-year-old refugee. “People like me couldn’t go to a disco because of our skin colour.” A rising neo-Nazi movement was sparking street violence and occasional racist murders. Baksi soon threw himself into a struggle in which Larsson, 11 years his senior, was already a key player. They became close co-workers, and against a backdrop of death threats and violence—the printers for Expo, Larsson’s outspoken magazine, were firebombed, while Baksi’s flat was shot up—the two spoke almost daily for 10 years.
They did not always see eye to eye. As a young immigrant, Baksi was not as shocked to his core as older Swedes were, including Larsson, by the unsolved 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. It rocked the Nordic nation, inspiring, among much else, the virtual creation of Swedish crime writing. “Most crime authors I know started then,” says Baksi. “It was his killing that planted the idea there was something rotten in our society. You know, Stieg told me he had 10 books in his head, and the last one would be about Palme.”
But real tension between the two only arose in the context of honour killings within Muslim communities, when Larsson’s hatred of misogyny rubbed against Baksi’s more single-minded defence of minorities. Baksi admits he finds it “very hard to talk about” the killings for fear of the ammunition publicity gives anti-Muslim bigots. But Larsson would never downplay any violence against women. Baksi writes of how Larsson had a source, a man with unparalleled knowledge of neo-Nazi activities, whom Larsson learned regularly beat his partner. At a considerable cost to his intelligence gathering, Larsson refused to have any more to do with the man.
Baksi roots his friend’s militant feminism, made incarnate in the character of avenging angel Lisbeth Salander, in a story Larsson told him. In 1969, 15-year-old Stieg witnessed three friends rape a teenage girl. Too young and frightened to intervene, Larsson later went to the girl and begged forgiveness, which she, understandably, would not extend. His novels, Baksi feels, are one long cry of “never again.”
Baksi’s Larsson is no saint, but a militant crusader willing to cut journalistic corners—citing himself as an anonymous source, for instance—for what he saw as a greater cause. It’s a portrait denounced as libel by Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s common-law widow. But Baksi, who is friendly with Larsson’s father and brother (who are locked in a bitter inheritance battle with Gabrielsson), is unrepentant. “We all have a Stieg we remember. This is the one I knew.”