Just about any subject can be interesting in the hands of the right artist or writer: glory lies in the telling, not the raw material. All the same, I was a bit surprised to find myself so utterly charmed by Red Winter by the Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark. Yes, at the heart of this graphic novel is a clandestine love affair, and yes, it comes with plenty of snow and subtly lit interiors. But it’s also a cold-eyed and occasionally chilling analysis of the ruthlessness, bullying and groupthink indulged in by a certain kind of small-time, small-town Marxist. It is, in other words, a book in which the difference between, say, the APK (a Swedish Leninist political party) and the SKP (which is, or was, Maoist) actually matters – at least to some of its characters.
The action takes place in an isolated and somewhat bleak town in the north of Sweden in the late 70s; the four-decade reign of the Social Democrats has just come to an end and across the country far-left parties are mobilising, hoping to overthrow capitalism (though naturally they seem not to be able to work together). Ulrik came here from the south, having been deployed by his party to spread the word, and spends his free time selling its newspaper in the street and attending endless meetings with his zealous comrades. But all is not going entirely to plan. Siv, the woman with whom he has fallen passionately in love, is not only a married mother of three some 14 years his senior, she also works – oh, the horror – for the youth wing of the local Social Democrats.
Both of them fear discovery: Siv has her husband and children to think about, not to mention her friends and neighbours in this close-knit community; Ulrik knows that his comrades would regard such a relationship as little more than sleeping with the enemy, even if he’s as careful as any spy not to allow his pillow talk to touch on politics. But they also dream of running away together, and perhaps it’s this that, in the end, draws the attention of Siv’s suspicious daughter Marita, and of Ralf, the most horribly devout member of Ulrik’s Maoist chapter. Even when they’re present, these two seem somehow to be elsewhere.
Furmark makes the most of this narrative tension: at moments, her comic has the flavour of a thriller. But she’s also a wonderfully lyrical cartoonist. When Siv speaks of love, it’s akin to poetry; when Marita goes out to play, she enters the enchanted forest of her own imagination. Best of all, though, are her gorgeous watercolours, which utilise blue and orange – ice and fire – to such marvellous effect. Something about her depiction of this subarctic region, where in the winter the sun struggles to rise, brings to mind the forested landscapes of Tove Jansson. Cosy as her kitchens and bedrooms are, outside is a dangerous realm. Here, the winter nights will always be too long, for lovers and leftists alike.