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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

    

Aniara

by
Harry Martinson


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Aniara



Title: Aniara
Author: Harry Martinson
Genre: Poem
Written: 1956 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 149 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Aniara - US
Aniara - UK
Aniara - Canada
Aniara - France
Aniara - Deutschland
Aniara - Italia
Aniara - España
  • A Review of Man in Time and Space
  • An Epic Science Fiction Poem
  • Swedish title: Aniara: en revy om människan i tid och rum
  • Translated by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg
  • With an Introduction by Stephen Klass
  • Previously: "Adapted from the Swedish by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert" (1963)
  • Aniara was made into an opera, music by Karl-Birger Blomdahl and libretto by Erik Lindegren (1959)
  • Aniara was made into a film, directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja (2018)

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Our Assessment:

B : odd piece of work, but has its moments

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator* . 1/3/1963 Kingsley Amis
Sunday Times* D 3/3/1963 Keith Sagar
TLS* . 15/2/1963 Burns Singer
[* review of earlier translation]
  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he high seriousness of this theme evaporates in the intense-inane of Mr Martinson's imagination. The treatment will strike even a reader wholly unfamiliar with science-fiction as deficient in imaginative force and originality. (...) (B)etween the giggles are vast expanses of inanity. Nobel Prize material ? Surely not, whatever allowances we make for the translation." - Keith Sagar, Sunday Times

  • "His business as a poet does not include the development of new principles of cosmology or the invention of thought systems but is rather concerned with details which will make credible whatever cosmology or thought systems he adopts. (...) (T)here are passages in which his conception justifies itself and the words radiate a kind of austere but delicate simplicity. (...) (I)t was a bold move to translate this work and it may well prove a seminal volume in the history of English letters." - Burns Singer, Times Literary Supplement

  Quotes:
  • "I find it possesses, through the dynamism of its myth, much of the same apocalyptic one endures, rather than enjoys, in The Waste Land. Indeed, Aniara may well be a work of equal power and prophecy. (...) Aniara is more than the sci-fi saga of a spaceship lost in sidereal expanses. Along with C.S.Lewis, Harry Martinson has found that an interplanetary setting, light years removed from mundanity, supplies the esthetic distance necessary for truly profound thought. Reading Aniara unnerves and even cripples one with fearful realization that we may be launched on such a journey." - D. Bruce Lockerbie, The New York Times (10/11/1974)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Aniara is not just a novel-in-verse, it is a work of science fiction, complete with its own futuristic terminology. Written as the Cold War nuclear arms and space races were heating up, it begins with an earth "become unclean / with toxic radiation" and humans being sent to wait out the clean-up on nearby planets. The narrator signs up on the ship 'Aniara' -- "built for large-scale emigration" -- but on the voyage out, bound for Mars, some evasive maneuvers -- first "a swerve to clear the Hondo asteroid", sending it past Mars, then to avoid the fields of Jupiter, then some leonids (meteor showers) -- find it farther and farther adrift. The steering Saba Unit gets: "hit hard by space-stones / and great swarms of space-pebbles", and before they know it: "turning back was possible no longer". The Aniara flies onwards, into the great unknown.
       Presented in 103 cantos, the poem covers a journey that extends for years and then decades (and then, ultimately, what amounts to an eternity). The Aniara, a craft that is sixteen thousand feet long and three thousand wide, carries some eight thousand people when it begins its journey. It also has an artificial intelligence aboard, 'the mima' (sometimes also capitalized, as 'Mima'), which attains a level of self-awareness, its own inventor surprised to find: "the mima had invented half herself". It provides information, entertainment, and distraction -- but it all ends up being too much for this higher intelligence, and she self-destructs in machine-suicide (and, in the process, "many emigrants were stomped to bits"); her final message has her note:

How terror blasts inward,
how horror blasts outward.
How grim it always is, one's detonation.
       The mental stress is great on the humans as well: it's too much for the 'senior astrolabe' for example: "his brain broke down and died, soul-deep afraid".
       Indeed, ultimately:
In the beginning of our twenty-fourth year
thought broke down and fantasy died out.
Overwhelmed by the perpetual enigmas
of star-strewn galaxies without an end.
       Along the way and until that time, people make do in a variety of ways. While the poem is narrated by the Mimarobe, the one closest to the mima, defined by his role ("I have no name. I am of Mima."), some of the cantos present the stories of others aboard the ship. What has been lost -- an earth laid to waste (there are memories of: "the last spring nature was alive"), the beloved city of Dorisburg exploded by a "photoburb" -- is conveyed by and to those aboard the Aniara: even if there were a way to return home, there is no home to return to. They hope -- but from early on: "we're ever rubbing / dream on dream for want of something real". As they plunge onwards in this horizonless, unchanging future they find: "How hard to keep one's faith in life to come".
       As the narrator admits to himself:
I dreamt myself a life, then lived a lie.
I ranged the universe but passed it by --
for captive on Aniara here was I.
       Cults and rival religions form, there are times of sexual frenzy as well as persecution -- the mimarobe imprisoned for a while, for example -- over the many years. Conditions and situations shift -- both suddenly and over extended periods of time. So also:
But many were the changes in the life
we led in the world that had become our own.
The hall of mirrors which for four years running
prolonged our illusion
lay smashed and shattered
and fragments in the hundred thousands covered
in heaping drifts the floor that we had danced on.
       Such journeys have often been the subjects of poetry, and Martinson's leap into the endlessness of the universe is, ultimately, no more radical of fantastical than, say, poetic journeys to heaven or hell. A bit of science-terminology -- mostly invented -- gives it a slightly different feel, but ultimately this is spiritual poetry, the voyage of the individual and of humanity, and what has been left behind, a world ruined by mankind, leaving the survivors adrift in space "where no god heard us in the endless void". As Martinson writes:
We now suspect that what we say is space
and glassy-clear around Aniara's hull
is spirit, everlasting and impalpable,
that we are lost in spiritual seas.
       The artificial intelligence is an interesting addition -- and its fate an interesting take -- while the humans behave in generally predictable ways. The dark realization they come to is a familiar one:
There is protection from near everything,
from fire and damages by storm and frost,
oh, add whichever blows may come to mind.
But there is no protection from mankind.
       Aniara isn't a poem of the apocalypse, but in allowing some humans an escape from it yet having them find no redemption or salvation Martinson's poem remains a dark, pessimistic vision of any human future. Escape turns out only to have been an illusion, the vessel: "our immense sarcophagus", drifting on and on .....
       Martinson's poetry is, even leaving made-up terminology aside, often challenging -- compounded by the difficulties of translation, even as Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg gamely try to match his rhyming and meters. In a narrative that is often not straightforward either, the story zooming tightly in and then far, far out -- Aniara is not an easy read, and unlike most traditional science-fiction fare. Taken canto by canto, it often impresses, but it doesn't quite have the narrative flow of conventional novels; certainly readers can't approach it with the usual expectations they might have for fiction. Its poetic form here does very much factor into how Aniara reads. Taken on its own (unusual) terms, however, much of it is quite rewarding.
       Aniara is also a product of its times, but even as aspects may no longer seems as current, it holds up well in its bleak vision. Current expectations of man's self-destruction perhaps focus more on climate-change than nuclear destruction, but many of the fundamentals remain depressingly the same.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 October 2018

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Links:

Aniara: Reviews: Aniara - the film: Harry Martinson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Harry Martinson (1904-1978) shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2018 the complete review

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