Willy is a company geologist in Australia in the early 1970s. When he and his partner Bruce foolishly try to drive their Land Rover over an arm of a salt lake, they bog down and spend two days digging out in summer heat, leading to Willy’s heat stroke. Although he survives there is neurological damage which leads to scrambling his mind and petit mals seizures. He had been a sarcastic introvert before the incident, preferring to work alone in “the bush”, but now he is not sure who he is anymore. He determines to go to Sweden to visit a former work mate and get himself back together in the cooler climate.
In Uppsala he enrolls in Swedish language class, and battles through cat-sat-on-the-mat and stammering humiliation with classmates who include numbers of political refugees from various repressive regimes of the time. Undergoing this struggle and awkwardness in this alien culture compounds his own wobbles, but he finds growing affection for the classmates, who are all in it together. He, former loner, throws parties in the student quarters where he lives.
When one of the hallmates takes him home for a weekend, he meets the feisty Svea, for whom he immediately falls. His preposterous wooing of this Svea in front of her family is an outpouring of all the accumulated angst, as much as a cry of adulation.
Svea mocks and rejects him, but she is also bitten. After a week she relents and agrees to see him in Stockholm, though it seems this is only to further ridicule him. Until the swords are truly crossed and then thrown down.
When Willy returns to Uppsala for them to take a breather, he joins his school’s bus outing to Stockholm to see palaces and parliament. An adventure with one of his classmates takes a wrenching turn, which is prefigured by a grave marker Willy and Bruce had discovered just before Willy’s heat stroke in West Australia. The Norns – Norse sisters of Valkyries and Greek Fates – sweep across the stage.
Willy is a company geologist, which means he is supposed to be finding and developing mineable orebodies. As a prospector he follows in the traces of prospectors of yore, particularly those who scoured the “auriferous” wilds of the Australian interior in the eighteen hundreds, although as a company man he has a Land Rover, a salary and so on. He is somewhat a truculent solitary up until he and Bruce are sent out together looking for uranium in salt lakes, and get into the mess leading to the heat stroke.
The neurological damage manifests as partial memory collapse and absences through which old memories intrude like books from the back of a fallen shelf. As he recovers in Perth it all does seem to be coming back together, but perhaps without some of the former compulsions, and we see him use the cover of his debilitation to play the naïf and flirt with nurses. There is little deliberation about the abrupt decision to go to Sweden, it is a rejection of the mess he sees himself in, a capricious leap.
His flight from Perth across Asia to Stockholm is a travesty of an odyssey. His mind careens through dark tropical night, the novelty of planes full without a white face other than his own and one other non-English speaker with whom a tangential encounter seems likely to lead to his arrest as a child kidnapper. The 747 plane he boards in Bombay, which is not equipped to handle jumbo jets yet, has one more jet on one side than the other; gas flares in Kuwait at night are seen as candles in a Bosch hell, he is helpless and embarrassed at his own accent; and yet in this intense alien-hood he is simultaneously amused at the bizarreness and his own ineptitude. He arrives exhausted, but also elated in expectation of the new old world. “Jumbled by jet lag, bit like the absences, but we’re in the game, Yes!”
He has been broken in the desert, partly reassembled without warranty, fled and been wrung though Asia; and now for finding the Willy in the looking glass!
Uppsala seems to be an idyll with lots of cute students; but it is also a new home to many political refugees from eastern Europe and the Middle East. Struggling to converse with Swedish language classmates who have no language in common other than the Swedish they are learning is perhaps Willy’s most humbling experience yet. Words do not marshal as intended, and all are highly conscious they are earnestly uttering nonsense much of the time, until individual embarrassment becomes shared, and humor begins to override anxiety.
Willy has been frayed and unraveled and partly respun when he is smitten by Svea. At this time he has little enough dignity, and plunges into abjectly beseeching her father for her hand. He becomes possessed.
Willy’s denouement invokes an old training in another school in the distant past. And what does it avail him?
Svea is a pretty monster. As a child she was told by her grandmother her birthmark was a mark of the fairy people, which set her apart and ignited a defiant pride and fierce combativeness. She scorns Willy but is intrigued at his mixed oddity and self-deprecating mockery, and then horrified at his abject wooing in front of her family. She allows him to see her only to mock him, it seems, until something cracks. She and Willy are both a little mad, he enough to not be daunted by her as he should be, and she to toy with a pest that she cannot readily put down. Their complementary alienations attract like magnetic poles.
“Willy, I said once, where does this tenderness come from, is it part of your idiocy? Then you said, I thought it was from you. And so, it is like a couple walking on a strand, wondering whose footprints those might be, then realizing they are their own.”
I had allowed Svea her own full opening chapter in the first draft, but reviewers said the narrative shift from her childhood to Willy’s struggles in the outback was too much of a chasm for the reader, so now she has but a child psychologist’s brief exam notes until Willy crosses that chasm in the other direction. She is a colossus; but the tale is the path of the willy willy.
The main theme of Willy Willy is his collapse following the heat stroke and his whirlwind passage, a bumbling pilgrim’s progress fumbling in a strange language. The willy willy (a whirlwind in Australian, derived from an aboriginal name) is his pseudonym.
P Mack whose grave plaque Willy discovers just before succumbing to heat stroke, and the swagman of Waltzing Matilda, are his outback compatriot kin. Unraveling Willy is also compared to Dostoyevsky’s Myshkin (“The Idiot”), who is given Dostoyevsky’s own grand mal seizures and an earnestness which wins him love and mockery, and eventual collapse. Mack’s assailants prefigure the hoodlums in the Stockholm square.
There are many incidental elements in the weft of the tale, which are mostly expected to be unobtrusive but may be hoped to give occasional glints of something. Russians mistake Willy’s native New Zealand for Nova Zemlya, an island with mines and (of course) a former Soviet camp in the Arctic Ocean. Fish proceeding from Tasmanian brown trout to an absence (natch) in the salt lake to pike in the Bergstrom lake to the great golden carp in Stockholm. Moslem Mahmoud knocking himself out over the piglet running down the street. And repetitions, like reflecting crystal faces in a broken rock: Willy’s rehearsing his karate in the wood and the Stockholm encounter, the woman on the plane identified as Joost’s niece, and did we mention P Mack and the lads in Stockholm.
The bookending of the tale by the murder of the old prospector Mack, and Willy’s confrontation in the square, is an essential symmetry. There are many non-essential components which should not hold the reader up, but invite a wry nod where noticed. One such comes up when Bruce tells Willy before they drive out onto the salt lake that it looks one of those mistakes that are dying to be made; and Willy responds that it is a “galloping gerund, a regular fucking brumby of (one).” Willy is trotting out half-remembered high school Latin, in which the gerund(ive) expresses something to be done, and the galloping brumby voices his mongrel memory in pseudo-Virgilian rhyme (quadrapedante putrem sonit ungula campum, etc). Later, in the boathouse with Rolf, musing drunkenly on what he is, and Svea, this echoes as “. . .if you are crazy enough. I yam I yam. Iam quatit ungula campum.” These crumblings are obscure rambling, not worth the average reader’s solving, but may pluck an old string for a few; and those few would recognize that Willy confused the gerund for the gerundive, but the meter of his pronouncement won out over grammatical propriety.
Willy tells the shrink that his seizures are absences of feeling and words, perhaps like what you feel with a spear in the side as you ebb from the world, presaging his stabbing death.
In the 747 Willy notices the two jets one side, three the other, and wonders. But there is no troubling vibration, underneath him striding steady air is a quote from Hopkins’ Windhover. Although Willy professes to be an anti-poet, he has a lexicon of musical poetry.
Willy’s schoolboy French gets him nowhere which he finds amusing, until Svea (who has been studying it for the Red Cross) tells him it is execrable, which bites deeper.
Carey the Tasmanian geologist and explorer of Papua, survivor and chronicler, is contrasted with Willy and Mack, the casualties.
The blue and yellow early winter morning sky seen from Svea’s apartment has the colors of the Swedish flag.
Not that the novel poses as a “where’s Waldo” exercise, but there are twists in the fabric which range from a knot in a darned sock (anyone remember those days?) to a wink or a blink. And some of those obscurities connect to subsequent tales in the trilogy.
One word on the language and tone of Willy Willy: patience. Let the voice come to you.
The dialog and narration look like spoken speech, but trying to read it aloud will show you that it is a bumpy rhythm with an evasive meter, perhaps a bit like Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie. “Pursed lip purser, holding back ten languages, faintest curl showing disdain for this accent, again. Aww crikey!” You must ingest it at a temperature somewhere between hearing and reading, and let the words set the pace.
There is a deliberate and perhaps initially off-putting narrative voice, which descends repeatedly from the objective third person into Willy’s stream of consciousness, following the flow of his unruly mind. Scenery is minimal; it is what Willy stubs his toe on. His classmates and the Swedes however are restricted to the third person, the former being off in their own languages yet and the latter on the leash of a saga narrator observing what is said and done but generally not allowing thought to intrude.
Willy himself has an affinity for folk rhythms and his P Mack doggerel sides with Waltzing Matilda’s swagman. He is also fascinated by the meter that comes through the description in his mineralogy text book of pyrite, with crystal faces commonly “striated due to the oscillatory combination of cube and pyritohedron”. He would have found “I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly for you tread on my dreams” (Yeats) unforgiveable, sappy drivel.
He ridicules the Australian genteel avoidance of “bloody” on the page (in 1970), while it is ubiquitous in speech, often just as metric foot, as in “no bloody good,” or even in the middle of a word as in “kanga-bloody-roo!” And yet it is not just a trochaic foot, as evident if one tries “kanga-porridge-roo”; it is also imbued with the bloody history of the nation, where the English found flogging convicts as natural as breathing.
The public voicing of “bloody” by the horsey princess blanched some of its sub-cultural power in Australia, and Willy eulogizes the word as much as his prospector forbear P Mack in his doggerel ballad. The ballad itself shows too that “bloody”, apart from its metric use and its brutal historic flavor, is a chameleon word, taking on the value of its context.
Willy is chagrined that his schoolboy French goes nowhere in Sweden, even with the supposed North Africans. Svea, who has picked it up for the Red Cross, ridicules him for it. The author in fact learned his French smattering from a high school master named Mr. French, who was not French.
The historical context of the novel, like the scenery, is sketchy but correct. Fleeting references to the Munich Olympics, Vietnam draft dodgers and meetings of Russians and Cubans in Uppsala with the CIA trotting in their wake were real. But the import of this sketchy context is that Willy has come from a southern desert (with snakes and scorpions) to a Cold War Europe, with political refugees from a dozen troubled nations, from raw nature to raw politics. Which is to say that Sweden is not a pastoral idyll, but a crossroads a few hundred miles from Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Many roads in the Swedish forest have (still) long broad reaches intended to function as fighter airstrips. Willy’s grasp of the geopolitical issues is limited by his groping in a new language; but those issues impinge.
The story takes place just before the Israeli raids on Beirut in retaliation for the Olympic attacks by Palestinians. And not much before the CIA entanglements in the Angola revolution documented by my canoeing friend John Stockwell (“In search of Enemies”).
Apparent “throwaway” detail suggests to some reviewers a memoirist emptying attic boxes of photos rather than fiction. Well, yes, there are a lot of lived experiences in Willy’s story, but they are events rearranged and blended. Is all the detail subordinate to the plot? The piglet and golden carp in Gamla Stan were real, too good to not use, and I hope someday someone will say, Yes, that was such and such a movie. Still, fiction.
I am tickled to see that the Swedes have just made a movie of the book by Claeson, Vem älskar Yngve Frey in 2018, to which there are a couple of references in Willy Willy. Willy tells Bengt he has just read this book, and Bengt the rural blacksmith is amused that he knows from that what the shaft of a scythe is called. And Bengt relates a local telling of a story in which Yngve Frey was dragged down his field by a pair of bolting horses and never walked again. The 1960s book and 2018 movie show Swedes indulging in nostalgia for their pastoral past.