House of Babel, by P. C. Jersild
This book is probably the most well known of the Swedish author P.C. Jersild’s many books. On the surface, it is a book about an elderly patient, Primus Svensson, 76 years old, who has a heart attack, falls off his bike and wakes up in a hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. We follow him, as well as various other people, in the giant, seemingly rational organization that lives inside the hospital. The novel is said to be modeled on the Karolinska Hospital in Solna, outside Stockholm.
As we follow poor Primus, we learn how the hospital functions. Or, to some extent, does not function. And, thus, get an inside look at one of the huge modern hospitals in Sweden. Of life and death in a hospital, so to speak. The novel illustrates the depersonalization and outrageous cost of medical treatment today in a vivid fashion.
House of Babel is a somewhat dark and biting satire about the inner workings of Swedish hospitals and of modern health care. And, as the title suggests, language is the primary means used by such institutions to destroy individuals. But it is used inside the organization to demonstrate power and to fend of challenges as well. It serves to protect bureaucrats from the destructive consequences of their actions and to intimidate others. I think it applies well to hospitals everywhere.
As a MD himself, Jersild knows a lot about what goes on, and has a wonderful ability to spin tales around it. And it is all there – the bureaucracy, the lack of responsibility, the brutal realities of the pecking order of the organization, as well as the variety of human responses to the multiple things that seem to be going on.
A Living Soul, by P C Jersild
Per Christian Jersild
(P. C. Jersild, born 1935) is a Swedish author and physician. He holds an honorary doctorate in medicine from Uppsala University. He was born in Katrineholm in a middle-class family.
He published his first book, Räknelära, in 1960. He has written 35 books, usually focused on social criticism. His most famous work is Barnens ö (Children's Island), which tells the story of a young boy, on the verge of adulthood, who runs off from a children's summer camp to spend time alone in the big city, Stockholm. Also worth mentioning is Babels hus (The House of Babel) which gives an account of the inhuman treatment of patients at a large modern hospital.
A Living Soul is a book about a brain. Its name is Ypsilon. Ypsilon lives in a laboratory in a privately owned research corporation. He is a human brain floating in an aquarium. He is supposed to be pure intellect, and freed of the need to regulate any bodily functions – as his body has been removed – he is expected to perform at super high levels of intelligence. And he does – IQ 500 or so. However, he still feels lonely. And he still seeks to form bonds. As well, he seeks to dominate his environment with his brainpower.
And, feeling very lovesick over a pretty lab assistant named Emma, Ypsilon even chooses not to respond to elaborate educational regiments. Then, assisted by a chimpanzee and a detached human hand, he makes and sets in motion detailed plans for an impossible escape.
A Living Soul is a satirical and somewhat frightening book, and one that raises interesting questions of an ethical nature. The whole story is told from the point of view of Ypsilon, and as readers we experience the vulnerability of Ypsilon and share the lack of information and alienation of Ypsilon.
The book well excellently written in a straightforward, simple language. It is a strange, highly original and very interesting book by a world class Swedish author.
"Amusing and phantasmagoric." - Publishers Weekly.