The Great Leap Forward — 大躍進 in Chinese — refers to the second Five Year Plan for the years 1958 to 1962. It was an attempt to rapidly transform the People’s Republic into an ideal communist society. In effect, it led to massive starvation due to food shortages, with millions of people dying from the simple lack of something to eat.
This kind of blind, accelerated rejection of the land in the name of “improvement” seems to lie at the heart of this poem by Tomas Tranströmer, first published in the collection Mörkerseende (1970). What he calls in the third line det stora språnget must be, I think, a Swedish translation for the Maoist term. And — without trying to limit the possibilities of the poem too neatly — the reference at the end of the text to begravningsplats = “burial place” hints at the destruction and famine associated with the ill-fated Chinese campaign.
But is Sweden (or anywhere else, for that matter) really so different? There is, for me, an echo of this insane leap-mentality in a passage from the book Författarmiljöer i Stockholm by Ulla Montan and Ludvig Rassmusson:
När Stockholm under förra seklet blev storstad, offrades naturen. Det hade inte behövt gå så, det var inte nödvändigt — i Paris, som var den stora förebilden, anlade man parker och planterade träd längs boulevarderna. Men i Stockholm var man nyförälskad i stadsaktigheten. Alla dessa inflyttade som lämnat landsbygden bakom sig, skämdes för de knotiga björkarna, de magra rönnarna, vedbodarna, utedassen, Kronblom ock leran. De ville ha modernitet och stadsaktighet. (p.52).
When Stockholm became a big city over the course of the previous century, nature was sacrificed. It did not have to be that way; it was not at all necessary. In Paris — which served as the major prototype — parks were laid out and trees planted along the boulevards. But in Stockholm people had become infatuated with the big city lifestyle. All those who moved to the city left the countryside behind, ashamed of scraggy birch trees, skinny rowans, woodsheds, earth-closets, low-brow comic-strips and all that mud. They wanted modernity and a life in the metropolis.
Two kinds of vocabulary dominate this short poem: a construction lexicon intertwined with agricultural terms. The organic growth of the soil is mimicked by a constructive pseudo-flourishing: earth-coloured men pop up out of the ground like seedlings. Farm-animals seem to haunt the poem. We are reminded of them by the cranes that wish to spring like gambolling lambs; by the sound of bells; by the concrete pipes, thirsty in their own way, “lapping” at the light; and by the repurposed lagårdar or “cow-sheds”. But ultimately, the landscape is a space-age, lunar one, devoid of organic growth, a deathly site populated everywhere by föremål [objects] rather than subjects. The search for profit at the expense of the magical fertility of the soil has betrayed us.
Män i överdragskläder med samma färg som marken kommer upp ur ett dike.
Det är ett övergångsområde, dödläge, varken stad eller land.
Byggnadskranarna vid horisonten vill ta det stora språnget men klockorna vill inte.
Kringkastade cementrör lapar ljuset med torra tungor.
Bilplåtverkstäder inrymda i före detta lagårdar.
Stenarna kastar skuggorna skarpt som föremål på månytan.
Och de platserna bara växer.
Som det man köpte för Judas’ pengar: ”Krukmakaråkern till begravninsplats för främlingar.”
Men in overalls the same colour as the ground sprout up out of a trench.
This is an in-between zone, dead-heat, neither city nor country.
Construction cranes along the horizon want to make the Great Leap Forward, but bells hang back.
Dotted across the landscape, concrete pipes lick light with parched tongues.
Crash-repair garages housed in what used to be cow-sheds.
The stones cast their shadows sharply like objects on the surface of the moon.
And such places are growing.
Reminiscent of “the Potter’s Field” they bought with Judas’ silver “as a burial place for strangers”.