Granta: Your new book, A History of Bombing, is structured as a labyrinth, a series of narrative threads that require the reader to go backwards as well as forwards. Why did you choose to write it in this way?
Sven Lindqvist: It has to do with my conception of history. For me history is not like a ten-lane motorway, where you can see from the start where you will finally arrive. It's much more like a maze or a labyrinth, where you struggle forward, taking one step in one direction and another step in another direction. I was also inspired by the manuals of the role-playing games. Some young friends of mine play these games, and I noticed that the manuals were constructed as a series of short numbered pieces. I've written in numbered pieces for a long time now, but the difference about these manuals is that the reader is sent back and forth so that they never really know where they are in the book. I found that rather exciting. I was also inspired by computers, of course—the way you click yourself through from one file to another and from one page on the net to another page. My book is organised in a similar way. [...]
G: Did you find A History of Bombing more difficult to write than a more conventionally structured narrative?
SL: Well, I'm used to writing in this fragmentary form, in very short chapters with each chapter making a single point—maybe I was influenced by Nietzsche because much of his writing takes the same form. British Parliamentary reports were another inspiration: they consist of numbered pieces where every piece makes a single proposition, says just one thing, before going on to the next number and making a new statement. But at the end it was very interesting—I had this great number of short pieces, and to make the final structure took some time. It was exhilarating work.
G: Did you work out the structure at the end or did it emerge as you went along?
SL: I had an idea of what I was going to do but not a very detailed idea. I wrote certain sequences of fragments constituting an argument or a story—for instance, the sequence about the Korean war—and then when I had all the different threads I wove them together: it was the weaving together that was so exciting.
The basic tool of modern war is quite simple. You take a piece of Chinese bamboo pipe, and fill it with gunpowder, invented in China in the 9th century. Then you have three options. If you close the pipe at both ends, it becomes a bomb. If you open the pipe at one end, it is blown forward by the explosion and you get a rocket. If you open the rocket at the other end, you get a gun or a cannon.
Few of his other works have been translated sadly. Desert Divers (1990) looks good. And 'Exterminate All The Brutes' (1992) is fantastic. It uses a Saharan trip as a framework to present a history of Western European colonialism in Africa that shows that genocide is intrinsic to European history, rather than an aberrant notion that starts with Hitler.
The idea of extermination lies no farther from the heart of humanism than Buchenwald lies from the Goethehaus in Weimar. That insight has been almost completely repressed, even by the Germans, who have been made sole scapegoats for idea of extermination that are actually a common European heritage. [...] What Hitler wished to create when he sought Lebensraum in the east was a continental equivalent of the British Empire. It was in the British and other western European peoples that he found models, of which the extermination of the Jews is, in [Ernst] Nolte's words, "a distorted copy". [p9-10]
More How we work.