Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Unit - Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 42

During the 42nd week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I realized that I enjoy reading dystopian stories. This past week I went to the library and looked on the shelves in the fiction area. After realizing that there aren't a lot of books that begin with "U" (I don't count words like "a", "an", and "the"), I was happy to find The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.

The Unit, originally written in Swedish in 2006, was supported by a grant from the Swedish Arts Council. It is a thought-provoking book about extreme social engineering that is not all that far-fetched from reality. Perhaps that is why it is such an unsettling premise - that it bears a familiarity to some attitudes and practices that are common in contemporary society.

The story revolves around Dorrit Weger who, upon reaching 50 years old and without children, is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. Although she has know that because she does not have children and isn't employed in a progressive industry that she is "dispensable" (along with men who are over 60 years old and without children and non-progressive jobs) and must transition to the unit, it doesn't make the change any easier.

It reminded me of people who go into assisted living or a nursing home - leaving behind a home, pets, much of their belongings, and a connection to the "real world" - whether it be with their spouse/family and/or connection with others via computers. 

As Dorrit explained, "I didn't want to be alone...I didn't want to [think] about the fact that I would never again experience the feeling that flooded through me that morning in March each year when I opened my door and saw the first crocus of the year in bloom on my lawn. Or the first scilla or the first hepatica or the first scented violet. Or when I saw the cranes, trumpeting as they flew over in wide skeins on their way north to Lake Hornborga.

"Above all I didn't want to think about Jock (her dog), about the fact that we would never again run together in the forest or by the sea. Or take our walk along the tractor route to Ellstrom's farm to buy fresh eggs and vegetables for me a pig's heart for him."

Interestingly, Dorrit doesn't so much miss her friends and colleagues (both which were limited), but rather her dog who provided the love and companionship that she enjoyed. It  bothers her that she couldn't fully explain to her dog what was happening. 

As she said, "Nils (her casual romantic partner) could at least explain to me why he couldn't be with me properly and make me a needed person, and I could understand that. But how will Jock...ever be able to understand why I drove away without him that day? How will he ever be able to understand why I never came back?"

She said that people who don't have animals don't understand that you can miss them so much it can hurt. Dorrit said, "The relationship with an animal is so much more physical than a relationship with another person. You don't get to know a dog by asking how he's feeling or what he's thinking, but by observing him and getting to know his body language. And all the important things you want to say to him you have to show through actions, attitude, gestures, and sound."

So, once people leave behind their lives and enter the Unit, they are sequestered for their final years. They are expected to participate in psychological and drug testings, donate parts of their bodies that their lives are not totally dependent upon (e.g., kidney, lung), and then ultimately make their "final donation" (donate their body so that various parts can help those in "the community" who have children and jobs in progressive industries be healthy and functional. What body parts aren't used are stored until they are needed.

Despite the ruthlessness of the practices of the Unit, the residents are connected with and support one another. There is a level of compassion and love that many have never felt in their day-to-day lives in the Community because they felt isolated and different based on their life choices.

The Unit has many attractive features to it: state-of-the-art recreation facilities including a swimming pool, indoor track, and sauna; movie theater; live theater for plays and concerts; fine dining options (that are free for all residents); fine clothing (also free for residents); and indoors gardens (since there are no windows and views of the outside world).

The gardens - a Winter Garden and one inspired by Monet's paintings - are impeccably tended so that flowers are always in bloom, the fragrance is pleasing (a mixture of cypress, rose, jasmine, lavender, and eucalyptus), and looking at them is enjoyable and relaxing. 

The entire facility is designed to provide comfort to the residents (despite the surgeries and experiments) while they are there. Invariably, deep friendships and relationships form. 

Dorrit falls in love with Johannes who has been a resident at the Unit for over three years. Dorrit ends up pregnant, which she believes may be the ticket for her and Johannes to leave the Unit and begin a life in the Community as a couple. She dreams - even before she finds out she is pregnant - of a home with a fenced-in yard, her dog, and walking on the beach together with Johannes.

Ultimately, this doesn't happen for a variety of reasons - all of which I found to be particularly sad. Even Dorrit's final choice - when presented with freedom - came as a surprise. Yet, in some respects, perhaps it was a wise choice when it came to the needs of the child she ultimately birthed.

At the Unit, none of the residents are there for the long-term. In fact, about four years is about the length of time that a resident would stay in the Unit.  At that time (or before, if requested), they are provided a form that they complete that indicates when they want to make their final donation. In essence, it's physical-assisted suicide of a healthy person whose body is harvested to help others.

Interestingly, despite the closeness that these residents feel towards one another, the one thing they don't share is the date of their final destination. Other residents often find out about a friend or partner's final destination unexpectedly: a visit to a room only to find staff throwing out the person's possessions in trash bags or being told that the person to whom they developed a loving relationship with was in the process of making their final donation. There's no chance to say goodbye. The person simply gone. For me, this was particularly disturbing. 

The Unit is a well-written and translated book; and is one that I finished in less than two days. Once I started reading, I didn't want to put it down. It was an engaging story and one that I would highly recommend. 

1 comment:

Rita said...

What a strange premise. But you could almost imagine it, sadly. Sounds like an interesting book. :)