By Bo Bjørnvig
He insists that he is a refugee, and one has to admit there is something to it. He is probably the only Dane who has fled authoritarian Denmark to receive permanent residency in another country for ”humanitarian reasons."
Novelist Per Smidl guides me around Christiania in the October sun; and once again one wonders why on earth we go on building dreary suburban wastelands, when it is possible to build this beautifully, variegated and entertaining. In Christiania you never suspect what is about to appear around the next corner. Rather than a suburban grimace every house – home – shed – building exhibits a state of mind.
Smidl does not look much like a refugee re-crossing his path – well-dressed and with a free bearing he also does not look like one who has always been hard up for a dime. Which in fact as it turns out he has not. The hard times only started thirty-two years ago when he relocated to The Freetown and a wooden wagon vacated by Bankrupcy Benny who had just been busted for smuggling hashish. For a greeting the newcomer was labeled ’a nice kid from the suburbs’ by oldtimer Christianite Knud, meaning: "What the hell’s someone like you doing out here?”
We can read about it all in Per Smidl’s recently published autobiographical romance and memoire entitled ”Wagon 537 Christiania.” The book tells the story of the lad Les who grew up in the affluent suburbs of Copenhagen (Brede, Hørsholm and Holte) and who in the 1970’s studied history at the University of Copenhagen, was married and lived in a respectable city apartment.
On the surface everything was as it is supposed to be. But then… there was the attraction of Christiania. There was the friend Martin who lived a charmed life in a fairy-tale setting: ”In the January darkness of a heavy snowfall I see us arriving at The Gunpowder House disguised as snowmen on bicycles. It’s all right there for me to touch. The way we lock them, raise our heads, and breathe in the cold evening air tinged with the smell of wood smoke. The scent that comes from The Little Gunpowder House where it’s dry and we can thaw our frozen toes.”
The wife, too, enjoyed these visits but what she did not enjoy was the change that would come over her husband. Not that she herself was unaffected… ”the visits to Christiania had the effect of an aphrodisiac on her,” but… ”like the neurotic paranoiacs of society’s political and economic elite, she sensed that The Freetown was a rival for my loyalty and a threat to our marriage.”
And she was right. Her husband, who was no less affected by the aphrodisiac, kept being unfaithful. In the end she packed up and returned to her native California. Besides, she saw only too clearly the darker aspects of Christiania, the abominable mess and the human wrecks floating around in a stupor in it; in short all the things that her husband – who she took for a spoiled and naïve brat that had been led astray – did not see. When the friend Martin informed him of the vacated wagon, abandoned Les jumped at the offer. Leaving the empty comfort of his city apartment he took up residence in a tiny wagon located at the end of Green Street in Christiania where The Banana House is today.
However, the deeper reason for the move may be found in literature. There was Henry Miller who at the age of forty leaves his former life behind. Although poor as a door-mouse he proceeds to live the bohemian life in Paris right up until one day he becomes a celebrated author.
Miller’s move put ideas in young Smidl’s head. And so did another Henry – Henry David Thoreau, who built a small log-cabin in the Massachussetts of 1845 where he lived as simply as possible for two years. (See his classic account of the sojourn in ”Walden.”) When a tax-official appeared by the shores of Walden Pond and insisted Thoreau pay his poll-tax he refused and was clapped into the village jail. Very much against his own will he was released when his aunt payed the tax for him.
The wagon by the old ramparts in Copenhagen only a stone’s throw from the seat of parliament became Smidl’s shack in the woods, and his subsequent rebellion against the tax-authorities purposely resembles that of Thoreau.
I took Thoreau seriously. He showed that it was possible to remain free and lead a rich life if one would only cut back on one’s material needs. Enslaving oneself in order to have a steady income was not the way. To demonstrate how little was needed to stay free of an employer Thoreau carefully listed his expenses. When ten years later I myself was taxed off money I had never earned ("You can’t live on so little!” said the tax-official) I became stubborn. Writing a letter to the minister of taxation explaining the reasons I refused to pay, I closed my account in the bank, sent in my health-insurance card and removed myself to Prague in the "new” Czechoslovakia after The Velvet Revolution. Arriving at the main train station in Prague I felt all wrought up. I couldn’t forget the way I’d been interrogated. In one of our sessions the tax-man had informed me I could not deduct the novels I had bought. His logic was that there were plenty of novels already in the world. Quite aside from that, he argued, to produce more superfluous novels it wasn’t necessary for the novelist to read novels. Once upon a time the first novelist had surely managed to write the world’s first novel without there being any novels prior to his. No…! He did not imitate. Was it not so…!
Inspired by "Civil Disobedience” the essay Thoreau wrote when he was jailed for not paying his poll-tax I wrote my "Victim of Welfare. An Essay on State and Individual in Denmark." In this little book I reflect on how the citizens of Denmark are being blackmailed and bullied by the State’s tax-system. To me there’s one sentence that sums it up: ”Dig your own grave and deduct the shovel (from your taxes)!” Former editor-in-chief of Berlingske Tidende, Henning Fonsmark, praised the book in the Sunday paper and recommended it to the readers. As it turned out, quite a few people shared his opinion; prominent among them was the grand old man of Danish letters Villy Sørensen who four years later wrote me a letter in Prague informing me ”he’d originally recommended ”Victim of Welfare” for publication to Reitzels publishers. Unfortunately it was to no avail since editor Asger Schnack rejected it. In the end, however, the essay was published. That was in December 1995 or one year after the publication of my bestselling novel ”Chop Suey.” Or rather, I thought the ”Victim” was published. In reality all the publisher had done was send out review copies and keep the entire edition in his basement. Running for election for the social democrats he’d apparently got cold feet. But… miracle of miracles! Six weeks later when Fonsmark (who’d read the review copi) wrote his centerfold article the demand for it swept it right out of the basement and into the public debate and consciousness. A chapter was printed in the weekly ”Weekendavisen,” the minister of taxation had to answer publicly, and for a while the boulevard press organized a campaign in my favor. ”Great,” I thought, ”my future’s made!” But not so. When the hullaballoo died down I found myself alone and in a very silent place. Since then I’ve been persona non grata in my own country and been almost unable to publish. You might say that I paid a high price for not heeding the warnings of my editor (of the bestselling novel ”Chop Suey”) and publishing the ”Victim” book with someone else…”
Your stubborness impresses me somehow, but it also baffles me. You seem to take society very personally, as if it is you IN PERSON it’s out to get. But no society leaves its citizens completely alone – not even the democratic and so-called ”free” ones.
Since the State meddles in every single individual’s personal life, I think that every individual should take the State’s interference ”personally.” By doing this you might get yourself in trouble, but that’s besides the point. I see society as a sort of conspiracy against that which is of most value in each one of us. If you will, it’s like a joint-stock company forcing each one to buy a share… that is ”protection” (against destruction) and pay for it with his own liberty. Well, I never much fancied entering into that contract. This is also the reason I’ve not wanted to receive money from The Danish State. Okay, perhaps I’m a dreamer, but I also act. You have to act and in your own person stand by what you believe in. If you don’t, you’ll never have the wrath necessary to stay alive, cut the rope and be free. Besides, what kind of a writer is he who does not dare publish his own best thoughts?
So, yes, I see my life as a sort of experiment carried out by my own person. It’s been hard, sometimes real hard, but fortunately the darkest hour always announced the coming of dawn. My twelve years of exile in Prague was one long struggle for survival. The two darkest years we spent in a concrete apartment with ants in the kitchen, mosquitoes in the bedroom and in the bathroom a toilet that you flushed with a fishline that kept falling off. The fact that our two children were born right around this time did not make it any easier. The first couple of years in Prague prices were very low and we could live off the royalties I received for ”Chop Suey;” and when I published ”Victim” Rolf Dorset, editor-in-chief of Fyens Stiftstidende printed all the articles I sent him. It didn’t amount to much though. But it kept us alive. Still later the newspaper Jyllandsposten opened its pages to me again. As a matter of fact ”Victim” was also published in Czech (1999) where it received a lot of attention. President Havel’s librarian told me he’d personally handed him a copy, the subject matter being “a presidential must read." And what do you know! In the end I received permanent residency in The Czech Republic for “humanitarian reasons,” all because of the little “Victim” pamphlet.
Wasn’t your father a refugee too? In your new novel ”Wagon 537 Christiania” you write that ”refugee DNA” runs in your family.
Yes, my father fled to Denmark from Czechoslovakia in 1949 after the communists took power. As a jew he’d lived through terrible times in the war. He’d been whipped in the snow and lined up with the others in the labor camp for arbitrary executions when someone had run away or tried to. After the war he finished his engineering studies. But he did not want to live under the new communistic regime. He did well in Denmark, among other things he was the engineer on the SAS Hotel and for a while we lived in a small castle in Hørsholm. We were never short of money. But when he passed sixty he had a depression and took his own life. It was three weeks after my thirtieth birthday. Perhaps the war experiences caught up with him. His two older sisters (who also lived through terrible times) are still alive in Israel today. The young on is ninety-three, the older is ninety-nine and doing alright everything considered. Their parents were gassed by the Germans.
So your rebellion wasn’t directed against your family and what you were exposed to as a child?
No, not at all. I can’t explain it. Perhaps in one way or another I’ve remained childish. Children are endowed with a strong sense of justice – that is until the grown-ups succeed in destroying it. Why mine has remained intact is somewhat of a conundrum. Maybe because I kept my sense of justice longer than most I also kept believing that Denmark was the free, democratic and just society I’d learned about in school. Or maybe it has to do with the books I read. I absolutely devoured the classics. Their authors spoke to me in ways that made sense. My reading is what made me decide to become a writer myself. I, too, wanted to make sense for some unknown reader in an unknown future. Not the senseless sense of the tax-system, but a higher human or eternal sense. Still I thank my guardian angel that the troubles I had never turned me into a ”man with a cause.” I remember the poor suckers I saw out on Seagull Street, which is where the people who’ve been destroyed by the system go to either protest or pay back taxes – observing them talking to themselves, making wild gestures and punching holes in the air made me decide to get the hell out as soon as possible. And good thing I did; because if I hadn’t left I, too, would have ended up that way. My leaving was not so much a protest as it was a way of remaining sane.
SATYR AND ASCETIC
Judging from the trouble that Smidl’s alter ego Les (in the novel) has saying ’no’ to beautiful women, the other Henry, Henry Miller, did not exactly live in vain either. For as he says quoting a line from the motion picture Zorba: ”God has a very big heart. But there’s one thing he can not forgive and that is when a woman asks a man to her bed and he won’t go.” For Les, these words come in handy as an absolving mantra every time he is tempted by a woman, which, by the way, is no infrequent scenario. And the wagon at the foot of the historical ramparts apparently is his accomplice: ”It was quite remarkable really how this nightly sojourn to pee in the open awakened the primate in women. Out there, alone in the dark by the rampart, squatting on her haunches, naked in my clogs and sniffing her own impression in the snow with her sex the slumbering primate woke and took possession of her. And along with Miss Primate came all kinds of healing and primordial instincts for surrender, lovemaking, worship, pleasure and self-preservation. What a long-time use of glossy women’s magazines had seemingly killed in her was for a brief moment brought back in full force.” (p.142-3)
Is a juicy sex-life part and parcel of liberty?
No, you can live a good life for long periods at a stretch without a so-called sex-life at all. Like Siddhartha in Hesse’s novel who in order to find God at one stage needs to descend into pure carnality. Besides, if you don’t have a lot of money an active sex-life is likely to disrupt things and get you into all sorts of trouble that you don’t need in your spiritual quest for truth. In the novel I may resemble a bloody satyr, but in real life I’m more like something out of mythology, that is half satyr and half ascetic. I can turn up one and the other down as required by the circumstances.
You seem to thrive in The Freetown and one wonders why you leave it after only two years. Did you thrive too much?
Yes, that’s it. I was having a too good time. Life was just too intense. I wasn’t able to concentrate my light enough to make a flame the way one needs to do if one wants to write. My surroundings kept disturbing me, all the time there was something that needed to be done, a roof that needed mending, a pipe that needed to be replaced; and I didn’t want to say ’no’ too often either.
The writer and illustrator Kim Fupz Aakeson held out much longer than you?
So he did. Maybe because he mostly drew at first. When Christiania celebrated its fortieth anniversary in September 2011 old Christianites asked me how come so few novels are set in Christiania. Hans Løvetand wrote ”Where to Tom? To Christiania!” That was in 1974. In 2006 Gorm Henrik Rasmussen published his ”See You in Pusher Street.” As far as I know that’s all. It’s hard. One can’t both live it and write it at the same time. And a novel set in Christiania very easily becomes lopsided. Writing is a lonely business, but it’s been mine – my business. I guess I enjoy it. It’s never been necessary to chain me to the desk. On the contrary I wish I had more time for it.”
Per Smidl’s novel “Wagon 537 Christiania” is a tragi-comical account of life in a wagon in the “Wagon Village” in the area called “The Dandelion” in Freetown Christiania. There are the friends Martin, French Christian, Danish Christian, Old Knud, Wagon-Jacob, the sweetheart and super-girl Lili and all the other girls besides. The narrator, middle-aged Les, recounts from his perspective of our time how he began to write and came of age in The Freetown of 1979-82. The narrative follows two tracks, one in the present and one in the past. However, it’s the adventures of young Les that take up by far the largest part. The reading is lit up by the Christiania anecdotes told along the way. Like the account of the dog show in celebration of Christiania’s ten-years birthday. For this occasion the hash pushers had washed, dressed up and combed their horrible growling monsters in the hope that it would improve their chances of winning the coveted trophy: The Golden Turd for best performance. Or the story of the full-bodied and completely naked girl who one sunny day settles on a doorstep in the Wagon Village, or the broken-nosed friends who jokingly recount how they were beaten up. And the tourists from all over the world entering The Freetown combed, clean-shaven and well dressed only to exit a couple of days later dirty, bruised, dishevelled and confused. Smidl doesn’t romanticize – it’s a roaring roller-coaster ride with gleeful ups and free-falls down. But that was in those days. Since then The Freetown has been “normalized” – except for the fact perhaps that Hells Angels has taken control of the hash-market. As it was no Danish publishers wished to publish ”Wagon 537 Christiania,” so in the end Per Smidl had to raise the money for the printing of one thousand copies in English and one thousand in Danish. The book has been marketed by Fiction Works publishers. It has cost approximately 17.000 dollars which a good friend and supporter has invested in the project. Prior to ”Wagon 537 Christiania” Per Smidl has published the novels “Upon My Heart We’re Alive” (1989); “Chop Suey” (1994); “Mathias Kraft” (1997); “Waiting Room” (1999); “Passenger of the Storm” (2003); and the essay books “Victim of Welfare. An Essay on State and Individual in Denmark” (1995) and “Freedom of Expression” (2006).