The Assassinaton of Olof Palme, by Rick Harsch et al.
The Assassination of Olof Palme, published in two volumes in 2020 and 2021, is available here as the same text but in a single volume. This is not an unusual publishing history for a work of this magnitude. What is completely unique about the book, however, is its manner of composition. I liken it to an orchestral work/performance conducted by its primary composer, Rick Harsch, who assigns portions of the composition to his instrumentalists, those whose fragments, if you will, he weaves into his own work at the moments appropriate to the appearances of their voices. His orchestra is composed of approximately fifty other composers/musicians, none of whom hears any of the other portions of the work until the final product is performed/published. The conductor nods, the featured contributor, having been presented with the general context, produces his or her intellectual music. The conductor/composer folds in his own development, then nods to another contributor, and on and on and on. Improv but on a grand scale.
As one of the contributors to this book, I was given three short assignments. I was presented with the names of real historical/political figures, situations to dramatize, and a few comments to suggest the direction of my efforts. Then I was told to write whatever I felt moved to write in the forms and styles that suited me. Scores of other writers were approached in the same way, given names and scenarios and the freedom to do with them whatever they would. The result is an amazingly vibrant and coherent symphony, a sweeping searchlight on the activities of government-organized covert (does anything good ever come out of this word) activities targeting left-leaning anti-fascist persons and groups in the wake of World War Two and the long violent history of stay-behind operations in Europe climaxing with the Cold War.
Everyone knows a bit of history, but Rick Harsch is an avid historian, eminently suited to the task of pulling together work by and about a disparate array of raw forces, activities, personalities. If history is not his vocation, is it surely his avocation on a level exceeding the professional and approaching the authoritative. The Assassination of Olof Palme, his collective novel, a “People’s” novel, is invested by his board vision with a deep and angry sense of history. It also is invested with everything that is best about improv: unpredictability, lightning-fast changes of direction, the sensation, at times, of skidding out of control only to be rescued at the last moment, and an incredibly sharp wit. In some parts it is an extension of his novel “The Skulls of Istria,” and persons from that novel work their way into Olof. This novel continues and amplifies Rick’s intense immersion in the history of the Balkans, the burial grounds of the victims of shadow governments and a microcosm of fascist atrocities that extend from there to the land of Noriega, to the streets of Stockholm, via the United States.
Who killed Olof Palme? No one knows. Or does it? It? Was it the Americans? The Italians? The Turks? So, you want to know it. Do you think Rick Harsch has the answer? He’s a top-notch anti-fascist writer, alright, he spots fascists and neoliberal scumbags with a hound’s sense of smell, or perhaps like a truffle hog looking for his sweet fungi, but does he really know something… Yes, Rick Harsch's The Assassination of Olof Palme. Rick Harsch is indeed one of the greatest American writers of our times, and... oops, Harsch did it again, he played with your mind, didn't get lost in the game... Shut up! What the hell is this? This is a serious text — like all Harsch’s texts, they delve into serious issues while apparently mocking and teasing you, enveloping you with those two most appreciated qualities of a great author: humour and surprise. This is indeed a book full of surprises, and you must pay attention to the connections, Rick Harsch would certainly appreciate your effort. What are you talking about? This song I just sang has a secret connection to Sweden and the mysteries surrounding Palme's death. How so? You see, the guy who wrote most of Spears's stuff is a Swede, he's the one who writes most of these pop hits. Oh yes? I see, so what's the point? It's quite relevant! And there's more. Come on, you read the book, who's the CIA agent most often referred to in the text? Agent Spear. Exactly. And there are two Spear agents: Spear Senior and Spear Junior. That makes two Spears! Hey, now what's this, can I just finish this text? Sure, go ahead, I just… You're always interrupting but you're not even half amusing as Harsch, now there's a writer who can mingle all kinds of text and somehow pull it off, you see, this novel was written by Harsch et al, and if you know your Latin you should know this et al refers to up to 50 other authors, who contributed with longer and shorter pieces that Harsch absorbed like a cannibal and made his own, he’s the real mastermind, and you can sense how honest his writing is, how original his language, how great his post-Joycian neologisms, how marvellous his political and social engagement, and one can’t help to enjoy how a lot of characters from other books show up, them and Klaus Barbie, and Italian fascists and anarchists, and Nancy Reagan, and a moronic Ron Reagan and CIA agents, CIA is everywhere, Harsch is a critic of all things American when it concerns foreign policies and military interventions, CIA and its preference for right-wing dictatorships above all, and so he mixes all these stories with a great sense of humour and lots of freedom and creative pleasure, one must envy Harsch his obvious freedom from commercial constrictions.
So, please, read this book and appreciate Mr. Harsch's feats and his work as the architect behind this funny, witty, often hilarious, always entertaining, meta-fictional work of art, the proof novels can take any form whatsoever, as long as you do it right.
Joao Reis, author of The Translator’s Bride, Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow, The Devastation of Silence, Quando servi Gil Vicente, and Se com Pétalas ou Ossos
More good stuff from Rick Harsch, a writer who writes neologisms with a machine gun rhythmical implacability and smells fascists like a frenetic dachshund hunting fat rats. Harsch mingles many characters, like Klaus Barbie (aka Pure Evil) and Henry Kissinger (whose decomposing body might get a few a kick), American foreign policy-driven disasters, a sad ending (nice people don't seem to live happily ever after), and bizarre situations like that of a flying mackerel to create yet another engaging and often hilarious--though serious in its implications--novel.
Harsch has two main qualities that I thoroughly enjoy in a writer: a great sense of humor and the capacity to surprise the reader. Highly recommended.