A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding, originally written in Swedish, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here
In October 1989, a set of triplets is born, and it is at this moment their father chooses to reveal his affair. Pandemonium ensues. Over two decades later, Sebastian is recruited to join a mysterious organisation, where he meets Laura Kadinsky, a patient whose inability to see the world in three dimensions is not the only intriguing thing about her. Meanwhile, Clara has travelled to Easter Island to join a doomsday cult, and the third triplet, Matilda, is in Sweden, trying to escape from the colour blue.
Then, something happens that forces the triplets to reunite. Their mother calls with worrying news: their father has gone missing and she has something to tell them, a 25-year secret that will change all their lives.
The baby blues came quickly to the triplets’ mother. But before that, the babies, of course. Sebastian was first, then Clara, then Matilda. Or perhaps the order was different — afterwards no one could really be sure because then came pandemonium, as one of the newborns’ heartbeats, and then breathing, went awry. A doctor rushed into the room. A baby was borne out at lightning speed and in its place was brought a tray bearing open sandwiches, cordial, and three little Swedish flags (bad timing, obviously), and a father — the triplets’ father — was suddenly left empty-handed with not a clue what to do. He picked up a cheese sandwich while his wife, with the two remaining babies clutched one to each breast, delivered the afterbirth.
It wasn’t until afterwards that he realised what he ought to have done was run after the doctor who’d gone to try to revive his child. Perhaps he was in shock — that’s what his wife would think later — and in any case the baby was soon back again: suddenly there it was, lying in its father’s arms, tiny, wrinkly, and gulping for breath, but quite clearly alive. It was like getting a second chance, the father thought, looking down at his newborn’s fluffy head — and he decided to take it. The triplets’ father wasn’t stupid, and even the first time he stuck his hand down his dental hygienist’s knickers he’d understood two things. One: that he didn’t have strong enough nerves to maintain a double life indefinitely and would therefore be forced, sooner or later, to admit his affair to his wife — who he actually loved very deeply, or at least had a very deep dependency on, which, the father reasoned, was essentially the same thing. And two: that the best time to do this would be at the exact moment she’d become responsible for not one but three children, making it unlikely she’d be able to manage on her own, and consequently, unlikely she’d throw him out.
This turned out to be a wholly correct assessment. In the jittery moments after her three children had been borne into this world on a wave of blood and pain, the triplets’ mother, a priest at All Saints Parish in Lund, experienced a fear of the future that was so intense it caused her very belief in God to evade her mockingly. The fact that one of her babies had almost perished from what the doctors would later call spontaneous asphyxia neonatorum with no lasting complications unsurprisingly exacerbated this fear. For the ten minutes during which, instead of the three babies whose soft feet she’d for months felt pressing against her hands through her abdominal wall, she’d suddenly only had two, she experienced a sorrow so cruel and bottomless that all the sorrow that was to come, including that inflicted by her own spouse, paled into insignificance. For those ten minutes she’d felt ready to throw God out with the babies’ first bathwater — for what God could tear a newborn baby from its mother’s arms before she’d even had the chance to touch its wrinkly little hand?
In the jittery moments after her three children had been borne into this world on a wave of blood and pain, the triplets’ mother, a priest at All Saints Parish in Lund, experienced a fear of the future that was so intense it caused her very belief in God to evade her mockingly.
Compared to this divine betrayal, the betrayal of the man who’d stood there, mouth full of Gouda and fluffy white bread, solemnly swearing to stand by the babies and her, if she’d only overlook his dalliances with the dental hygienist, appeared little more than a trifle.
That’s not to say she didn’t cry.
That’s not to say she forgave the guy.
But she was happy, she was happy all the same. So dizzyingly, joyously happy about the babies, about suddenly having a family, even if it was somewhat skewed and scuffed and a bit of a sham. Suddenly the gold in the world stood out so brightly all around her: the coffee, the clementines, the fluttering hospital curtains on that unusually warm, sunny autumn day, as finicky little Sebastian finally latched on to the breast in exactly the right way and took a full feed for the very first time. Everything tasted heavenly. All the colours were vivid. Every bodily sensation, even the painful ones, took on a new, almost erotic dimension. In a meadow of powerfully scented flowers — since flowers were still allowed on labour wards in the late eighties — over the week she stayed in the hospital with her three rather underweight little babies, the triplets’ mother slowly but surely regained her faith in God and divine love, of which the children were unquestionably a part.
Things were undeniably less certain regarding her earthly love for their father, and yet she endured for more than two further decades. There were other things to think about. Feeding schedules. The cost of music lessons. Secrets.
But of course, the marriage was bound to crumble in the end.
First came the triplets, then the drama and the tears, and the drama again. Then almost twenty-three years’ ceasefire. But the day finally came when the last of the triplets left home: the first-born, Sebastian, who, perhaps because he’d been the first to leave the womb, had the most difficulty flying the nest, even though he flew no further than to a room in the local student halls. The same day, their father moved into a single room at the local hotel. It didn’t even have a minibar, but there were stars outside the window — indeed, the whole universe. He looked out of the window and for the first time in his life it struck him that the universe was very, very big and that a person, in comparison, was very, very small.
This happened in 2012 — making the triplets’ birth year 1989, in October. For Christmas the same year, their father gave their mother a piece of the Berlin Wall he’d bought from a street-hawker outside the supermarket. It was supposed to symbolise reconciliation. She threw it at the kitchen wall and went on breastfeeding.
In the summer of 1994, southern Skåne was swarming with ladybirds. Small red dots everywhere, even in the dog’s fur. All three siblings remembered it, even though they’d never talked about it.
In the summer of 1999, the dog died and was seamlessly replaced by another. It was a Newfoundland just like the first and they called it Bernarda. It had nothing to do with García Lorca.
1994 was also the year Sebastian wet the bed an average of 3.2 nights a week.
In October 1989, a girl who came to be christened Violetta was born in the same hospital. Her eyes were remarkably blue, her limbs remarkably thin, and her breathing notably laboured.
In the spring of 1995, Clara learned to ride a bike, but not Sebastian or Matilda. This was balanced out by the fact that both Sebastian and Matilda learned to swim that summer, but not Clara. The question of whose motor skills were the most advanced therefore went mercifully unanswered.
In 2016, Sebastian travelled to London, Clara to Easter Island, and Matilda to Västerbotten, in Northern Sweden. After that, none of them were the same. That year, their mother got an allotment in St Månslyckan. There, one frosty morning in February, she met a badger whose pungent scent and sharp claws made her think for a moment she’d come eye-to-eye with the devil, just like Luther in the Wartburg Castle. After that she started calling the allotment Fright-Delight, a name that made her feel alive. It was also the catalyst for a new-found desire to become completely pure in the eyes of the Saviour, which, over the coming months, would turn her children’s already somewhat complicated lives upside down.
In 2004, both Clara and Matilda got their first periods, in January and February respectively. Sebastian got a PlayStation 2.