In 1903 by the sea a child sees a fat man who is fishing. The child is shocked
to see that the man has his mouth full of live worms. The man asks the child
to post around town some papers: they are socialist posters inviting the local
workers to a meeting. The child can tell that the man comes from the capital
city. Later the boy is interrogated by the manager and the workers: they
eventually find the trespasser and kick him out.
They find him easily by a sawmill and force him to leave on a boat.
He is disheartened that the very workers he wants to help are turning against
him. He is used at police or capitalists persecuting him, but this region is
the only place where the workers themselves attack him.
He takes a room in an inn but four men show up to intimidate him and humiliate
him, spitting on him.
Johan Emblad, who was ready to give up his mission to save these ungrateful
workers from their fate of exploitation, decides to fight on and to still hold
the meeting. He speaks even after being beaten, his clothes torn, and the crowd
is mostly children and women. Afterwards, four policemen chase him with dogs
through the forest
and the child of the first scene is the one who finds him.
He never lets go of his box with the posters and the pamphlets.
They tie him to a tree and he pees in his pants.
The child's uncle, Aron,
interrogates him thinking that he is some kind of traitor.
The child shouts that he eats worms and the men force him to demonstrate.
The first time he throws up the worm but the second time he swallows it.
Finally they leave him to the child who releases him in the morning.
The socialist missionary files a report about those primitive people who
speak in an incomprehensible dialect and are hopelessly ignorant.
He doesn't know that he has actually succeeded in intriguing one person:
the child, Nicanor. For the boy the whole encounter was magical and exciting.
Throughout the ordeal Emblad has visions of his wife and of an "imbecile boy".
The child, Nicanor, left the village seven years later with his mother, and died at the age of 78 after trying in vain to save a dumb and deaf girl
who was drowning under the ice. He died of pneumonia, alone, in his humble hut,
and his dead body was only found several days later.
The narrator says that he was living in Los Angeles and he imagines what went on
in Nicanor's mind as he was dying.
The narrator says that three years after death Nicanor became famous because one
of his rants against the capitalists who shut down the sawmill was incorporated
in a play and caused a controversy.
Then the narrator jumps ahead and starts recounting the things that Nicanor told him about his
uncle Aron. Nicanor was 15 when Aron committed suicide. Aron's first woman
was Elsa, a humble worker, a widow with a child, who one day lost a leg in a
The scandal that preceded Aron's suicide was that Nicanor's eleven years old
sister Eva-Liisa got pregnant.
This Eva-Liisa had been abandoned by her mother, a gypsy-looking pianist working on a ship, and had been adopted by Nicanor's parents.
Before being found pregnant, she had been found stealing, a mortal
sin for these religious family.
The villages of this region are very poor. The men work at the sawmill or at
the harbor in the summer, but in the winter they have to work in the forest,
sometimes staying away for months.
They are aware that the coast is rising by one centimeter every year.
The narrator tells how once
about one hundred of the sawmill workers decided to write a letter to
protest their work conditions but, after writing it, they couldn't find anybody
willing to deliver it.
Then the narrator tells how Nicanor's father Karl had a stroke in 1924 and lived three years more incapacitated.
In 1907 some of the workers gladly accepted the offer to work for four months
in another village. Nicanor's uncle Aron was one of them but upon returning
he said that they had been hired to replace striking workers, they had been paid
very little, and they had lived in horrible conditions. One of them even died.
In 1908, when the sawmill started reducing wages, the workers formed an association.
The company's manager, Tiblad, bribed Aron to have him inform the company of such meetings.
The workers were angry that they were accused of not working hard enough.
Their first meeting with the management was not about money but about dignity.
At that time Nicanor and Eva-Liisa were forming an intimate friendship.
The workers requested that the manager be dismissed and one fired worker be
Instead the sawmill closed for the winter and, when it reopened, the wages were
The association survived a debate on whether to let
Alfons, a widower with four children, work during a strike (Alfons accepted
to strike) but it did not survive the failure of its strike. The strike was
called because the company reduced the wages again. Despite their reasonable
demands, the company refused to budge. The members then decided to dissolve
the association, which had not done any good to them.
Later some workers discovered that Aron had been spying on them and he calmly
confessed that he had done it in return for expensive butter. They beat him up and then called Nicanor.
Now Nicanor remembers Emblad and writes to him asking for help to get the
workers organized better.
Emblad lives with his wife Dagmar in humble conditions. She was a widow with
a child when he met her. Now she has three more children and one is an idiot.
Emblad feels bad receiving Nicanor's letter: the union neglected a town where
an association actually existed. His motivation to visit that town had been low
because of the way they had treated him when Nicanor was still a child.
Emblad loves his wife even though he once caught her in bed with another man.
His wife was already neurotic and now she's also lonely because Emblad is
constantly on the road. She even tried to hang herself. Then he started cheating
on Emblad. Now that Emblad has to leave again she begs him to take her with him,
threatening to kill herself. But he starts his journey alone again.
Nicanor tells him that the great strike failed miserably just like the association had failed: workers went back to work at the sawmill at a lower wage and some, like him, were denied work forever. It was too easy for the sawmill to find
in the nearby village desperate workers willing to work for nothing.
Emblad feels powerless. He can give his usual speech, and people like him,
but he has no practical advise for them. He travels to a nearby village and
converts to the socialist cause a group of workers. On the way back to Nicanor's
village he falls into a melancholy mood. Nicanor's religious mother Josefina
believes that he has been enlightened by Jesus like St Paul was.
Meanwhile, the family starts noticing that Aron stares insistently at
The girl, now sixteen, got in trouble with her adoptive mother Josefina
because Josefina believed that she was responsible for Nicanor's political
Josefina talks Emblad into going to church with the family. It is a long
journey to the church. During the journey, Nicanor rebels, and so do
Emblad, Aron and Eva-Liisa. They all walk back home. Later Nicanor tells his
mother that he has decided to join Emblad as his assistant.
In a remote village they are given free lodging by the granfather of the
writer, Enquist. Nicanor reads the report that Emblad is sending to headquarters
and realizes that Emblad embellishes their adventures to make it sound like
they are succeeding when in fact they are only met by hostile audiences.
In fact, they attacked by five men. Nicanor provokes them by spitting their
faces and in the ensuing brawl Nicanor loses the tip of his tongue.
Josefina had to walk all the way to that village to rescue her son.
The writer tells us that Josefina died two years later, in 1911, in Brazil.
Finally we come at the episode of Aron's suicide. While Josefina was away
to take care of Nicanor, Aron was fired and kicked out of the sawmill's
barracks. Homeless, he asked
Eva-Liisa for shelter. The girl was home alone but let him stay.
An old bachelor and an ugly cripple, he had been
a loner all his life, but now he was really alone: despised by the workers
as a traitor and abandoned by the management.
Eva-Liisa saw him weep like a baby and tried to help him. Losing control,
Aron raped her. Two months later, when Josefina had returned, she told her
that she was pregnant. Aron planned his suicide methodically and drowned
under a sheet of ice.
Emblad wrote a letter from the last village he visited. People were so desperate
that they were moving to Brazil. His letter impressed Josefina and
Eva-Liisa and they decided that the family should move to Brazil.
We already know that Josefina will die soon after arriving.