The history of the Swedish Pentecostal Church makes an unlikely—and inspired—subject for this historical novel from the formidably gifted Enquist (The Royal Physician’s Visit, 2001, etc.).
Erstwhile Pentecostal communicant Efraim Markström willed his lebenslauf (life story) to Enquist, the author tells us in the prologue. Enquist uses incidents from Markström’s lebenslauf, accompanied by recollections of his own religious upbringing and meditations on Sweden’s political and ecclesiastical history, to relate the saga of two Pentecostal leaders. Pethrus Lewi Johansson, aka Lewi Pethrus, transforms his fascination with a maverick, Christ-centered faith (created in San Francisco in 1906 by a one-eyed crippled black preacher “speaking in tongues”) into a movement that by the 1920s rivals his homeland’s state-controlled church. Underachieving bohemian poet Sven Lidman, disappointed in his search for “rapture” in literary creation and amorous affairs, makes his way to Lewi’s church, finding therein his long-sought “artistic genre . . . storytelling as sermon.” Juxtaposing the two men’s stories, bringing them gradually together, then recounting their growing enmity, separation and disillusioned later lives, Enquist painstakingly fashions two stunningly rich characterizations. The self-absorbed Lidman is a calculating sybarite who employs seduction, advantageous marriage and charismatic rhetoric to feed his need for celebrity. The stoic, basically humorless, distractible Lewi perseveres through the 20th-century’s troubled decades, preserving his congregation’s unity throughout various workers’, farmers’ and women’s movements. Lewi puts down dissension in the form of an ambitious missionary, then emulates the travail of John Bunyan’s Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress during his “exile” in the United States. His return to Sweden in 1941 brings a climactic break with Lidman, who has become enamored of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and eventually resigns from the Pentecostal Church. From their intertwined odyssey, Enquist has created one of the most powerful dramatizations of religious experience ever written.
A masterpiece, from one of the world’s most underrated great writers.