Book review for the 1940 Club: Kallocain


The #1940Club

For several years Simon, at Stuck in a Book, has been organizing club year events, usually in April and October, in which he encourages everybody to read books published in the same year.

Last October, the year was 1929.
This time, Simon chose 1940

This week is very busy and I don’t have time to recap all the books published in 1940 that I have already read.
I had originally planned to read two books, but How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (by Adler) has been republished since, with several additions, and I could not find the 1940 text. So I gave up reading it.

So I ended up reading only Kallocain.
It turned out to be an amazing discovery.


KallocainKallocain: A novel from the 21st century,
by Karin Boye
was originally published in 1940
Translated from the Swedish by David McDuff
November 28, 2019 by Penguin Classics
192 pages
Dystopia / Science fiction / Swedish literature

The edition I read it in has an excellent introduction by the translator, David McDuff.
It helped me appreciate how the book resonated with important themes in the author’s life, and how unique and remarkable this book was, among her other works, in the Swedish literature of the time, and for science-fiction literature in general.

Indeed, inspired by the author’s eye-opening trips to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, it has a lot of elements common with 1984, but it was written eight years earlier!
It did remind me of We, by Russian author Yevgenyi Zamyatin.
Actually, in many aspects, Swedish author Karin Boye was really ahead of her time. Too much maybe, as she put an end to her life a year after the publication of Kallocain.

McDuff describes it as “a vision of enslaved humanity, an allegory dream-like and grotesque, yet instantly recognizable to anyone then living through the international crisis… A dystopian novel, in which she portrayed not only earth-shaking world events, but also their destructive effects on individual human beings.”
“Subtitled ‘A novel from the 21st century’, like other books in the genre it depicts a totalitarian future that is really a warning about the dangers of the present day.”

The book opens with Leo Kall, a scientist, sharing in the first person about his years as a chemist and a prisoner. His memoir ends up being the book, and we discover little by little who he is, what he has done, and why he is a prisoner.
We understand we are some time into the future, may years after “the civilian era.”

Now, the economic system gives everyone all they need in terms of lodging and food (at least at the beginning), but the model has gotten rid of any trace of personality, of individuality, and of freedom.

There’s in fact only one thing: the World State, and humans are just members of that huge community.
“The individual was merely a cell with no other significance than to serve the organism as a whole” (chapter 4).

“The State is everything, the individual nothing.” (chapter 9)

Among other things, there was mention of Kadidja Kappori’s words: ‘He was no longer human.’
‘Human!’ I said. ‘Such a mystique people have built up around that word! As if there were something worthy of respect about being human! It’s a biological concept, after all. Where it’s anything else, it will be best to get rid of it as quickly as possible.’

Chapter 5

Feelings (such as compassion) are considered weaknesses to be ashamed of.
Walls contain the State’s Ears and Eyes, and home helps report to the state at the end of each week.

At 7, children are separated from their family and sent to camp.
Each person is owned by the State, as well as their feelings and thoughts. Everything is oriented towards the State’s best interests.

In this world, no one can and should be trusted.
It’s a world full of fear, terror even, anxiety (each person receives a monthly quota of sleeping pills), denunciations, suspicion.

No one should be too sure, and hadn’t we heard both on the radio and in speeches, and didn’t it say on posters both in the metro and on the streets: NO ONE CAN BE CERTAIN! THE PERSON WHO IS CLOSEST TO YOU MAY BE A TRAITOR!
Chapter 5

Don’t you know that it’s our duty to be suspicious? The State’s welfare demands it. (chapter 6)
“The sacred and necessary foundation of the State’s existence is our mutual well-founded mistrust of each other.” (chapter 9)

So Leo Kall comes up with a drug (named after him, Kallocain) “that will make any person reveal their secrets”, for the sake of the State’s security.

But as they test the new drugs on various subjects, they discover some persons who seem to have other values than those allowed by the State. Who are they?

The fact that they were silent so much made me really scared. And by the way, how they greeted one another! They took each other by the hand. It isn’t wise. It must be unhygienic, and also so intimate that you’d be ashamed to do it. Touching one another’s bodies like that, deliberately!”
Chapter 7

A faithful product of the heavy propaganda, Kall is suspicious of everyone, including his intriguing colleague Rissen and his wife Linda.
Hs drug is going to introduce lots of changes, including in his own self.

I was very impressed by Kallocain, and I’m actually surprised it’s not more often mentioned when we talk about dystopia and books on the dangers of totalitarianism, and the need to be vigilant.
The novel is also a reminder of the importance of individual freedom and the need to develop and protect our ability to think for ourselves.

Thanks Simon for picking 1940!




25 thoughts on “Book review for the 1940 Club: Kallocain

  1. Great review Emma. I also liked the book although not a SF fan. She describes it all so well, you feel the claustrophobic vibes.

    I see that the cover is from the wonderful artist Hilma af Klint. There was an exhibition where I live a couple of years ago with her art. I totally fell in love. There is also a movie about her life. She had that in common with Boye that she was far ahead of her time. Nobody really understood her art during her life time.


    • wow, thanks, as I read it in ebook, I actually didn’t really pay attention to the cover. I chose this edition for a nice cover on my post!
      I didn’t know about Hilma af Klint. I see “among the first abstract works known in Western art history”. Among


  2. Thanks for adding this one to the club! I don’t think I’ve read anything from Swedish, but this sounds fascinating. (And thank you for your kind words – I must mention my co-host Karen as being instrumental in helping Clubs happen!)


  3. This sounds a challenging but effective novel, Emma, and one I know I ought to read, but having stalled on the 1930s Sinclair Lewis classic It Can’t Happen Here when Trump’s presidency was under way, I’d really struggle with it for its prescient qualities.


  4. Pingback: Sunday Post #84 – 04/23/2023 | Words And Peace

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