Jan Myrdal, Swedish Author and Provocateur, Dies at 93

November 21, 2020 

Jan Myrdal, a radical Swedish writer who spurned the liberal politics of his famous Nobel-winning parents and embraced Communism, Marxism and Maoism, died on Oct. 30 in Varberg, Sweden. He was 93.

His death was announced by Cecilia Cervin, a former chairman of the Jan Myrdal Society, a group dedicated to preserving his extensive book collection.

Mr. Myrdal traveled and wrote widely, specializing in Asia. He depicted life in a small Chinese village during the Chinese Revolution, and his writings extolled the virtues of authoritarians. He abhorred the damaging effects of Western imperialism on developing countries.

But perhaps nothing in his career as a polemicist garnered him as much attention as the books he wrote expressing his distaste for his parents, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. The elder Mr. Myrdal was an economist and sociologist who shared the 1974 Nobel in economic science with Friedrich A. von Hayek and wrote "An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy" (1944), a pioneering study of race.

A cabinet minister and Sweden's ambassador to India, Mrs. Myrdal split the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting nuclear disarmament.

But to Jan, his parents were cold, cruel and contemptuous. They called him a "problem child" and left him with relatives (whom he preferred) for extended periods when they traveled.

In several autobiographical works he called novels, beginning with "Childhood" (1982), Mr. Myrdal wrote that his father had mocked him for being overweight, asking him, "Are you going to give birth soon?" He said his mother had treated him like a research subject, recording what he said in a notebook.

Once, he recalled, Gunnar drove his car into a ditch, causing Jan to fall out of the car and hit his head. Bleeding and hoping for sympathy, he heard his father tell him, "Don't act silly."

"Since then, I've had a scar on my forehead: a triangle," Mr. Myrdal told The Tampa Bay Times in 1992. "As if I had been branded."

His feelings of not belonging led him, when he was about 10, to ask his father, "Am I your illegitimate son?" The question angered the elder Myrdal, who did not answer, slamming the door behind him.

The accusations against the prominent Myrdals stirred a scandal in Sweden -- not long before Mrs. Myrdal was awarded her Nobel -- and turned "Childhood" into a best seller.

Image

Mr. Myrdal's 1982 book, published not long before his mother was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, provoked a scandal on its way to becoming a best seller in Sweden.

When excerpts from the book ran in newspapers, they had headlines like "I Detest My Mother and My Father Because They Never Gave Me Love."

Jan Myrdal was born on July 19, 1927, in Stockholm and moved with his parents and younger sisters, Sissela and Kaj, to New York City in 1938; his father had been hired by the Carnegie Corporation to study racism in the United States.

Jan enjoyed living in Manhattan, where he attended private school and read with fascination books about the French Revolution and the works of the Swedish writer August Strindberg.

But he was angry when his parents made plans to return to Sweden in 1942. The pending move led to a fight with his father, who, he said, grabbed him by the neck, shook him hard and pinned him to the floor.

At 15, calling himself a Communist, Jan left his family, dropped out of school and began a peripatetic decades-long career as a writer, provocateur and public intellectual.

"I chose to write," he told United Press International in 1987. "It meant I had to break with school and that kind of education. That I knew from Strindberg and others. One had to make oneself impossible from the start, tear down bridges."

Mr. Myrdal began writing books in the mid-1950s, but none attracted much attention until he wrote "Report From a Chinese Village" (1965), which was based on a month that he spent in 1962 interviewing the people of Liu Ling, a tiny rural collection of man-made caves.

"In many ways, this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution," Martin Bernal, an expert on Chinese political history, wrote in The New York Review of Books. He praised the book for the candid stories told by the villagers.

Some of Mr. Myrdal's other foreign travel work and political commentary raised questions about his allegiances, or was seen as overly sympathetic to authoritarian rulers.

His "Report From a Chinese Village" and one of its sequels, "Return to a Chinese Village" (1984), were viewed as uncritical of the brutality of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1970, after visiting Albania, then still ruled by the dictator Enver Hoxha, Mr. Myrdal published "Albania Defiant." Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the journalist and author Anatole Shub wrote that the book conveyed "the Gospel according to Hoxha in basically uncritical, dogmatic Marxist terms" and showed "unlimited admiration" for the Albanian people and for Hoxha's brand of socialism.

Then, in October 1979, Mr. Myrdal visited Cambodia shortly after the dictator Pol Pot had largely been driven from power by Vietnam but still controlled parts of the country after conducting a reign of terror that led to the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia's seven million people. Mr. Myrdal had met him a year earlier, and Pol Pot had signed Mr. Myrdal's visa.

After his trip, where he had a government official for a babysitter, Mr. Myrdal told The Times that he had seen no "horror stories."

Mr. Myrdal went on to punctuate a visit to Iran in 1990 by voicing his support for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa that Muslims should kill the writer Salman Rushdie for what Khomeini called blasphemy in the Rushdie novel "The Satanic Verses." Mr. Myrdal told a Swedish newspaper that the cleric's order had allowed oppressed Muslim masses in Europe to be part of a struggle "for their human dignity."

Mr. Myrdal's survivors include his sisters, Sissela Bok, an ethicist and philosopher, and Kaj Folster, a writer. Three of his four marriages ended in divorce. His third wife, Gun Kessle, whose photographs illustrated many of her husband's books, died in 2007.

ImageMr. Myrdal in 1967 being arrested by Stockholm police officers during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.
Mr. Myrdal in 1967 being arrested by Stockholm police officers during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. Credit...Photoreporters

In 1967, well after Mr. Myrdal had become estranged from his parents, the police in Stockholm beat him with batons and arrested him during an anti-Vietnam War protest.

Still, even in a protest against the United States in the streets of his hometown, he could not avoid the scrutiny of his parents. His mother, then a cabinet minister, had joined the government's decision to deny the protesters a permit, and his father publicly criticized his son for demonstrating.

"He was insane," Jan Myrdal said of his father's rebuke. "And six months earlier, Alva had said we should stop seeing each other to avoid compromising her position."

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