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Jan Myrdal, radical and rebellious Swedish writer, dies at 93

Writer Jan Myrdal in 1991.
Writer Jan Myrdal in 1991. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

Jan Myrdal, a radical leftist Swedish writer who chronicled his lifelong rebellion against his parents, both of whom received Nobel Prizes, and whose books extolled the virtues of communist regimes, died Oct. 30 in Varberg, Sweden. He was 93.

The death was announced on social media by Lasse Diding, the founder of the Jan Myrdal Society. Swedish media reports indicated that Mr. Myrdal had been hospitalized for a blood ailment.

Mr. Myrdal was the oldest of three children of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, who were at the center of international political and intellectual life for decades.

Gunnar Myrdal, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, helped design Sweden’s social welfare system, and his 1944 book “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” was cited a decade later by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawing segregation in public schools. Alva Myrdal, a U.N. official and Sweden’s onetime ambassador to India, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for her work advocating nuclear disarmament.

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To their son, however, they were little more than overbearing tyrants who belittled or ignored him throughout his childhood. He wrote that he was mocked for being overweight and that his father grabbed him by the neck and threw him to the ground. When he cried out of need for maternal attention, he wrote in a memoir, his mother “took out her black notebook and made notes.”

In 1938, the family moved to New York, where Gunnar Myrdal was invited by the Carnegie Corporation to study Black life in the United States. Jan Myrdal attended a progressive private school in Manhattan, which he said helped shape his social views.

He was downcast when his family moved back to Sweden in 1942. At 15, he quit school, declared himself a communist and embarked on an independent career as a writer, social scientist and filmmaker. He traveled widely and published the first of dozens of books in 1954.

After visiting Afghanistan, India and Myanmar (then known as Burma), Mr. Myrdal and his wife, photographer Gun Kessle, spent a month in rural China in 1962. The trip led to a breakthrough book, “Report From a Chinese Village” (1965), which examined the daily lives of local residents.

“I have attempted to reproduce as accurately as possible,” Mr. Myrdal wrote, “how these villagers, these individual men and women, portray their own reality; the experiences they remember and the role they believe they have played during one of the great social and political upheavals of modern times, the Chinese revolution.”

The book was generally well received and was notable as one of the first in-depth Western reports on life in China after the communist revolution of the 1940s led by Mao Zedong. But in the book, and in a 1984 sequel, “Return to a Chinese Village,” Mr. Myrdal showed little skepticism toward Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” marked by widespread persecution and massacres.

Mr. Myrdal also wrote books about Afghanistan, India and Albania, praising Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled his backward country with a ruthless brand of communism.

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During the 1960s, Mr. Myrdal left the Communist Party but remained a leader among Sweden’s left-wing intelligentsia. He opposed what he considered U.S. cultural imperialism and spoke out against the war in Vietnam. His condemnation of Western incursions in underdeveloped countries — including economic and social programs — helped advance the idea that European and American hegemony had a harmful effect on the world.

“We have written the theories,” he wrote in his 1968 book “Confessions of a Disloyal European,” “we have filled the universities with learned men giving rational motivations and reasonable techniques for every crime.”

Mr. Myrdal’s brand of Marxism was far to the left of the communism of the old Soviet Union. The liberal culture of Sweden, with its generous social and health benefits, was too conservative for him, in part because it was shaped by his parents.

“Confessions of a Disloyal European,” which some saw as a high-minded critique of Western imperialism, was viewed by others as a baffling riddle, with lines such as, “The dog looks at me. It is my dog. Whose dog am I?”

New York Times book critic John Leonard called it “a particularly disturbing combination of fiction, reportage and allegory” in which “the social reformism of Mr. Myrdal’s parents was reviled.”

As the world lionized his parents — Gunnar Myrdal was often called the greatest economist of his time — Mr. Myrdal exacted his revenge in a series of books, including a 1982 memoir, “Childhood,” which became a bestseller in Sweden.

His scathing criticism of his parents, who were still alive at the time, created a furor. In one passage, a 10-year-old Jan Myrdal asked his father, “Am I your illegitimate son?”

His father “only got angry,” Mr. Myrdal wrote. “He didn’t answer, but left the table and slammed the door behind him.”

He continued in the same vein in several novels, and he was long estranged from his parents by the time his mother died in 1986, followed by his father one year later. Mr. Myrdal did not attend his mother’s funeral, saying, “I did not want to create a scene with my father.”

(One of his sisters, ethicist and philosopher Sissela Bok, published a 1991 memoir that was more compassionate toward their parents and their shortcomings.)

In the meantime, Mr. Myrdal became an intellectual exile as he continued to hold political and social views that were increasingly hard to defend. In the late 1970s, he visited Cambodia and dined with Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, who orchestrated the mass murder of millions of his countrymen. As Mr. Myrdal returned from the country of the killing fields, he told the New York Times that he saw “no horror stories” in Cambodia.

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Mr. Myrdal’s credibility continued to erode as he defended the free-speech rights of Holocaust deniers and opposed same-sex marriage because it could be seen as a Western affront to religious clerics from other cultures.

In the 1990s, he reversed his views of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that led to mass arrests and killings by the Chinese communist government. After supporting the uprising at first, Mr. Myrdal later sided with the government, concluding that the brutal crackdown was justified because it restored stability to the country.

Jan Myrdal was born July 19, 1927, in Stockholm. He continued to write for Swedish journals until the last year of his life.

His marriages to Maj Lidberg and Nadja Wiking ended in divorce. He was married to Kessle, whose photographs appeared in many of his books, from 1963 until her death in 2007. A fourth marriage, to Gaytan Vega, ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, a son from his second marriage; and two sisters.

For all his political posturing and his anger toward his parents, Mr. Myrdal had a serious literary bent and was a student of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. A literary society bearing his name was established to maintain his private library of 50,000 books.

Mr. Myrdal was also praised as a sensitive prose stylist, deeply attuned to the countless places he visited around the world.

“Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind,” he wrote in his 1977 book “The Silk Road.” “Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes. And the cities you see most clearly at night are the cities you have left and will never see again.”

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