Red Winter

Militants in bell bottoms. Sweden, 1979.

What happens when love and Marxism are at odds? That seems a very 20th Century question, one that used to be asked often. A comrade sacrificing love for the greater cause of revolution is a theme that does not inspire – or delude, take your choice – as it did once.

Anneli Furmark’s graphic novel Red Winter (Drawn & Quarterly) traces the course of a love affair between Ulrik, a single man and Maoist party organizer, and Siv, an older married woman and Social Democrat, in a provincial Swedish town in the early 1970s. Originally published in Swedish in 2015, the new English edition is translated by Hannah Strömberg.

The narrative develops compelling depth through astonishingly good artwork, with watercolours depicting the winter scenes in which the story takes place. Furmark uses colour equally well to capture the cold, dark outdoors and luminous, warm interiors. Many frames stand alone as compositions. Furmark has a loose, expert hand that can combine limited colour choices – as in the black, white, and blue back cover – to wonderful effect.

Siv and Ulrik make a curious couple, one in which attraction overcomes clear differences. Ulrik speaks a language of revolutionary commitment to the point of violence; Siv speaks from a more poetic consciousness that abhors violence. Perhaps it is their loneliness and unexpressed alienation that pulls them together. Siv thinks to herself, “Ulrik says it’s the capitalist system that makes people feel lonely and alienated. . . It could also be the cold. I’m a prisoner of this winter. Winter and capitalism.”

Red Winter implicitly compares two vortices that pull these lonely souls downward: a far-left faction for Ulrik; a doomed love affair for Siv. Each is comparable to the other. When the inevitable revelations arrive, both face difficult choices. Despite her desire for change and a new beginning, Siv chooses her husband and children.

Ulrik faces a party disciplinary committee that believes his affair constituted dereliction of revolutionary duty, with accusations that Siv was likely a spy sent by the Social Democrats. Although he is a committed leftist, one who turned over his entire inheritance to the party, his future is questionable. Either he can accept reassignment to a tiny northern town and close surveillance of his personal life or the party will expel him. Both lovers, now separated, face difficult futures.

Furmark does not hesitate to point to some of the willful ignorance and disbelief that characterized the far-left politics of the 1970s. To note one particularly egregious instance, one of Ulrik’s comrades dismisses reports of mass murder in Cambodia as stories fabricated to discredit a successful revolution. These comrades display close-minded political paranoia and believe themselves justified to invade personal privacy by reading Ulrik’s diary. Their revolution will have no artificial boundaries based on privacy claims.

Siv too has created profound disturbances in her working-class family, one that she has offended deeply. Her son Peter, aware of the affair, has retreated into his room, where he listens to loud music. Interestingly, the final chapter focuses on Marita, Siv’s young daughter, not on the story’s two lovers. This parable-like chapter suggests that Marita has learned risk-taking; she is willing to walk into a deep puddle where water seeps into her boots. Siv’s risk-taking may have been more adult, but its messy consequences are not that different from walking into a large puddle.

Red Winter powerfully communicates the argument that rigid ideological positions are no match for human passions. Siv looks at the materialism that surrounds their lives and thinks “There’s only one thing that keeps these suburban lives going: sex. If they stop having sex, or start sleeping with other people. . . well, before long, the house will be up for sale. And then it’s sold to people who are still having sex.”

The materialist analyses of Ulrik and his friends are in the end subordinate to sexual drives. By the time Ralf, a faithful party organizer, asks “What are you, Ulrik? A communist or a lover boy?” the novel has demonstrated the futility of trying to keep those identities separate.

In the end, Ulrik remains trapped by his radical commitments and apologetic for having pursued his desires. His dilemma persists. It is Siv, the Social Democrat, who becomes more sensitive to the world and finds stability despite her discontents. While Furmark treats both characters with humane understanding, her final sympathies lie with Siv as she attempts to repair the damage to her family.

Photograph courtesy of Per Egevad. Published under a Creative Commons license.