Jan Myrdal, a radical Swedish writer who scorned the liberal policies of his famous Nobel Prize winners and stood up for communism, Marxism and Maoism, died on October 30th in Varberg, Sweden. He was 93 years old.
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 a lot, specializing in Asia. He described life in a small Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution, and his writings extolled the virtues of the authoritarian. He hated the harmful effects of Western imperialism on developing countries.
But perhaps nothing in his career as a polemicist caught him as much as the books he wrote to express his dislike for his parents Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. The elder Mr. Myrdal was an economist and sociologist who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Economics with Friedrich A. von Hayek and wrote “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” (1944), a seminal study on race.
Ms. Myrdal, Cabinet Minister and Swedish Ambassador to India, shared the 1982 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in promoting nuclear disarmament.
But for Jan his parents were cold, cruel and contemptuous. They called him a “problem child” and left him with relatives (whom he preferred) for long periods of time when they traveled.
In several autobiographical novels beginning with “Childhood” (1982), Mr. Myrdal wrote that his father mocked him for being overweight and asked him, “Are you going to give birth soon?” He said his mother treated him like a research topic and in one Notebook recorded what he said.
Once, he recalled, Gunnar drove his car into a ditch, causing Jan to fall out of the car and hit his head. He was bleeding and hoping for sympathy and heard his father tell him: “Don’t be silly.”
“Since then I’ve had a scar on my forehead: a triangle,” Myrdal told the Tampa Bay Times in 1992. “As if I was branded.”
His sense of non-belonging led him to ask his father, “Am I your illegitimate son?” When he was about 10 years old. The question angered his father, who didn’t answer and slammed the door behind him.
The allegations against the prominent Myrdals sparked a scandal in Sweden – not long before Ms. Myrdal received her Nobel Prize – and made “Childhood” a bestseller.
When extracts from the book appeared in newspapers, they had headlines like “I detest my mother and father for never giving me love”.
Jan Myrdal was born in Stockholm on July 19, 1927 and moved to New York City with his parents and younger sisters Sissela and Kaj 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 fascinating books about the French Revolution and the works of the Swedish writer August Strindberg.
But he was furious when his parents planned to return to Sweden in 1942. The move ahead led to an argument with his father, who grabbed his neck, shook him violently, and pushed him to the ground.
At the age of 15, when he called himself a communist, Jan left his family, dropped out of school and began a decade-long peripatetic career as a writer, provocateur and public intellectual.
“I’ve made a decision to write,” he told United Press International in 1987. “That meant I had to break with school and that kind of education.” I knew that from Strindberg and others. Right from the start you had to make it impossible for yourself to 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), based on a month he spent in 1962 with the people of Liu Ling , a tiny, rural collection of man-made caves.
“In many ways, this is the book everyone in China has been waiting for. It describes what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Cultural Revolution,” wrote Martin Bernal, an expert on Chinese political history, in The New York Review of Books. He praised the book for the righteous stories the villagers told.
Some of Mr. Myrdal’s other overseas trips and political commentary raised questions about his allegiances or were viewed as too personable to authoritarian rulers.
In “Report From a Chinese Village” and one of its sequels “Return to a Chinese Village” (1984) he was viewed as uncritical for the brutality of the Cultural Revolution.
After a visit to Albania when it was ruled by the dictator Enver Hoxha, Mr Myrdal published “Albania Defiant” in 1970. Journalist and author Anatole Shub wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the book conveys the Hoxha Gospel in fundamentally uncritical, dogmatic Marxist terms and shows “unlimited admiration” for the Albanian people and for Hoxha’s brand of socialism.
Then, in October 1979, he visited Cambodia shortly after the dictator Pol Pot of Vietnam was largely ousted from power, but still parts of the country after a reign of terror that resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s 7 million people Landes controlled. Mr. Myrdal had met him a year earlier, and Pol Pot had signed Mr. Myrdal’s visa
After his trip where he was babysat by a government official, Mr. Myrdal told the Times that he had not seen “horror stories”.
Mr Myrdal underscored a visit to Iran in 1990 by expressing 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 allowed oppressed Muslim masses in Europe to be part of a struggle “for their human dignity”.
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.
In 1967, long after Mr Myrdal became estranged from his parents, the Stockholm police beat him with batons and arrested him while protesting the Vietnam War.
Despite protests against the United States on the streets of his hometown, he could not escape his parents’ control. His mother, who was cabinet minister at the time, had joined the government’s decision to deny protesters permission, and his father publicly criticized his son for his demonstration.
“He was crazy,” said Jan Myrdal of his father’s reprimand. “And six months earlier, Alva had said we should stop seeing each other so as not to endanger her position.”