Worried about retirement or maintaining your standard of living in your “old age”? The near-future country in which Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist’s first novel, The Unit, is set has a comfortable future in store for many women 50 and older and men 60 and older.
Imagine this: Your own, fully furnished apartment in a complex of residents your age. Not only is the facility fully staffed, it has state-of-the art recreational facilities, a library, restaurants, shopping areas, theaters and virtually every other feature of the modern town. Not only that, it doesn’t cost you a cent. Even the shopping and medical care are free.
There are a few catches, though. For one, you can not leave the facility and surveillance cameras are everywhere, including your bathroom. More important, you are residing in a “Unit for Biological Material,” a facility for those who have been deemed “dispensable” because they are single, had no children and aren’t performing a job viewed as essential to the economy. Your payment, so to speak, is participating in medical experiments and donating “biological material”, such as your liver or corneas, as the need arises in the outside world. You will also probably be there only a few years before you make your “final donation,” whether it be a heart, your lungs or your liver. They will, of course, store any of your biological material that isn’t needed immediately.
While “final donation” has overtones of Hitler’s final solution, this is a dystopia in which coercion and tyranny come in the guise of care and succor. We view this highly civilized approach and supposedly humane approach to society’s needs through the eyes of Dorrit Weger, a woman who just turned 50. Rather than get married and have children, Dorrit pursued her own individual dreams and became an author. That makes her dispensable and she is taken to the Second Reserve Bank Unit with only the suitcase she packed, leaving behind her house and giving away her dog.
The Unit, translated by Marlaine Delargy, raises issues of love, gender, freedom, and social mores through the perspective of how we assess an individual’s contribution to society. Here, the focus is largely economic, where the dispensable sacrifice for the “necessary.” As Dorrit tells one of the facility’s psychologists, in this society “life is capital. A capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy. I am only a steward, taking care of my vital organs.”
Viewing individuals as an inventory of human capital creates other subtexts. One is gender-based. There is one reason men have an additional 10 years before they might be deemed dispensable — they produce viable sperm longer than women produce viable eggs. That increased chance of producing more human capital automatically makes them more valuable.
Another subtext raises the question of the value of art and literature to society. A number of those we meet in The Unit, including Dorrit, are writers, musicians or artists. Yet such activities do not contribute as much to society as industry and commerce. As a result, those engaged in intellectual endeavors are dispensable while those who contribute to the economy are essential. In fact, the volunteer librarian has a good explanation for why the library in the unit is so busy. “People who read books,” he says, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”
Although thought-provoking, The Unit is not exploring entirely new topics. Still, Holmqvist’s ability to invest the reader in both the story and the characters is exceptional. It is a book you hesitate to put down. In fact, I consumed it in the space of a couple separate sittings in less than a day. Perhaps due to its feminist overtones, the book is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet to classify or judge it as a feminist work alone is unfair. It certainly surpasses Kazuo Ishiguro’s widely praised Never Let Me Go and actually my belief that the acclaim for Never Let Me Go represented a victory of form over substance.
Hopefully, the fact this is a translated work and tends to be billed as feminist literature will not adversely affect the book’s ability to make it to bookstore shelves. The Unit deserves a wide readership.
Perhaps … the meaning of life is that it should be bearable.
Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit