Johanne Lykke Holm’s sparse and striking Strega, recently published in English in Saskia Vogel’s English translation, is full of objects and frozen images that linger like petrified still lifes. Tubes of lipstick, votive candles, licorice candies, dresses drenched in pond water and hung to dry. These objects populate a claustrophobic stage on which its subjects—a group of girls sent by their parents to work at an abandoned hotel in the Alps—are trained in the art of domesticity and manners. The major plot point of this darkly atmospheric novel is the disappearance, and likely murder, of one of the girls at a party attended by sinister, shadowy, groping men. Violence pervades the novel in the strangled subjectivity of Holm’s linguistic universe, in which the personhood of the girl is only ever secondary to her meticulously curated, dystopian environment.
The novel begins with Rafaela, the narrator and protagonist, reading a brochure about a program for seasonal workers at the historic alpine Olympic Hotel, while in a bath: “I lowered myself into the water and leaned my head back. I reached for the hotel brochure, which I kept in the gap between the bathtub and the brown-tiled wall. Each spread showed a slice of life at the hotel. There were high-contrast photos in crisp jewel tones. Girls in pearl-white aprons, girls eating ruby-red apples straight from the tree, girls setting out coral-pink charcuterie on an excursion to a jade-green lake” (10). The Olympic is framed as a kind of theater set, where its objects and subjects alike are jammed in time, caught in Strega’s strange, perennial loop.
Rafaela packs her bag and takes the train to Strega, where, atop a mountain perch accessible only by cable car, the Olympic Hotel resides next to a convent, a parallel stage of womanhood, where aging, uniformed women circle the centuries-old premises, brewing viscous green liquors and growing wild herbs.
The dilapidated Olympic Hotel, long past its prime, is utterly claustrophobic, grimy and red mold ridden, full of ghosts and hidden corners. Despite the lush forests and bright sun outside, the inside of the hotel is hermetic, closed in, with tones of red and black, curtains made of heavy fabrics draped over windows that are never opened. There is something captivating about the Olympic with its history of rituals past, the traces of the many girls who’ve walked the halls before, settled on its walls like dust.
When Rafaela arrives at the Olympic, she is welcomed by the three austere, oddly named older women—Rex, Costas, and Toni—who manage the hotel and its seasonal workers. They too are part of the set: maids and matriarchs who enforce the rules of the patriarchal society the Olympic surreally replicates. Of Rex, for example, Rafaela writes: “At the reception desk, a woman was sitting behind a pile of paper. She was wearing a formal suit dress with a figure-hugging jacket. She looked like a secretary. Or rather, she looked like an actress playing a secretary” (19).
Rafaela is one of nine, a small group of teenage girls sent from all over a continent that isn’t named but resembles Europe, with suitcases full of pressed clothes, sweets, and trinkets from home. Their names—like the language of Strega and the setting of Strega—are strange, of a different time, but contemporary too, mostly ending in the feminine ‘a’: Rafaela, Cassie (short for Cassiopeia), Alba, Barbara, Gaia, Alexa, Bambi, Paula, Lorca.
Days and weeks pass and no guests arrive. The girls are caught in a loop of domestic repetition (“We quickly learned that each day was a reproduction of the last” (44))—making and unmaking beds, washing and drying and ironing sheets, setting and clearing dining tables—and close-to-causeless punishments—boiled water poured over their feet, frigid ice baths, refused meals, meals of rotted vegetables—but only of a kind that won’t leave marks on their young and precious bodies.
Rafaela writes, “One might imagine a hotel as a place for people, but that wasn’t the Olympic” (38). Subsumed by their routines, by their collective, ritualistic motions, and under the authority of their overseers and the patriarchal mores they impose, the girls seem to coalesce, becoming one and indistinguishable from one another: “They treated us as one body, so we became one body. We forgot our individual traits and our individual responsibilities” (64). In Rafaela’s telling, the girls are not distinct, but move as one, dream as one; their features and mannerisms collapsed together on the page, their faces, “anonymous” (129), “empty and uninteresting” (31)—the kinds of “faces that could easily serve as a screen for other people’s projections” (19).
There is something baleful here in this surface-level erasure of feminine identity, and the parallels between the strange punishments and rituals of the Olympic Hotel and the everyday violence of ‘the real world’ are hardly subtle. And yet, something else is happening here too that isn’t only subjugation, something else made possible through Holm’s violent precision, the selective details and elisions of her language. In Holm’s careful prose, this eerie collectivity—this seeming subjugation of the girls to the fabrics and foods and clothing around them—also becomes something else, a source of power, a place from which to enact revenge, a place from which the girls can speak.
In an interview for her German publisher, AKI-Verlag, Holm confirms this intent; explaining that her linguistic method is also a political one, which aims to delineate a space for the girl to speak:
I think there is a method, a linguistic or literary method for allowing the young girl to find her voice in literature and I think that maybe mimics how it is done in real life…that is, not faking utopia, not speaking as if we live in some kind of post-patriarchal world, but speaking from inside the constraint or inside the prison, and in literature, that’s done by in a way exposing, by writing the prison…Sometimes, it’s done by making objects speak, making ghosts enter the novel, and so on…The voice is already there, but in order to be heard, it has to make use of the control that is put upon it, and turn it against the enemy, or the world, [for example] to speak in the sweetest voice as a girl, but it’s so sweet it’s actually dangerous. To make use of all these terrible, terrible, claustrophobic images that young girls have to live inside of—the projections, the expectations. You take that and you weaponize it and then you can speak and you can be heard. I think that’s what happens in “Strega”…it isn’t a question of…making some kind of utopian context…It’s about playing the girl to perfection, so that she becomes uncanny and dangerous…[The girls] are like perfect puppets of the patriarchy, but inside of them is something else, waiting to attack.
Or, as Alba, Rafa’s closest friend and perhaps romantic interest, puts it, after the disappearance and likely murder of one of the girls: “Maybe…we can find a way out of this crime scene by making one of our own” (155).
The language of Strega would seem to elide the subjectivity of the girls by making them secondary to the scenery and objects that surround them, but there also is something radical in the novel’s form of narrative self-effacement, which mimics Holm’s approach to writing, as she describes it in the interview cited above: “When I write, I am not present. But what is present is the ritual of writing.” When the girls clean, when Rafa writes of the girls cleaning, of their rituals of girlhood, of their almond cookies, licorice candies, and small amulets, the novel creates something larger, something that perhaps can lead them out.
Early Swedish reviews of Strega drew comparisons between the novel and works of television and film that deal with dead girls and kitsch, such as Twin Peaks, The Virgin Suicides, and The Shining. However, reading Strega with my own pet interest in schoolgirl fictions in mind, thinking about this project of articulating the actual and figural prisons of girlhood, perhaps as a way to escape them, I can’t help but think of another slim book, Frank Wedekind’s Mine-Haha, or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (1903), a strange expressionist novella from the early 20th century, which bears various structural and narrative resemblances to Strega, and which Holm in fact translated from German to Danish a few years before publishing Strega.
In Wedekind’s story, young girls are educated in a mysterious place called the Park, isolated from the world and from men. The young girls arrive to the park in coffins, seemingly from nowhere, where they, like the girls of Strega, are taught in the manners and mores of womanhood. Wedekind, who was actually quite the feminist for his time (readers are more likely to be familiar with his 1906 play turned Broadway hit, Spring Awakening), uses an embedded narrative style, where a male narrator stumbles upon the manuscript of the novel, which has been written by an older woman—an attempt to portray the strange contortions and rituals that it narrates from a female perspective. But it is difficult not to read a male perspective, an ominous male-gaze into the sexualization of these girls, their outfits and their movements. Lucile Hadžihalilović’s 2004 film adaptation of Mine-Haha, Innocence, takes this on in a brilliant way, repurposing the narrative, in a similar way to how Sofia Coppola adapts Jeffrey Eugenides novel, The Virgin Suicides, for the screen.
Like these retellings, Strega too takes on Wedekind’s narrative, and so many other depictions—romanticized, critical, ironized, sexualized—of the young woman and the inescapable prisons of language and convention she is trapped within, and creates openings within it. When narrative itself, literature itself, has been complicit in constructing oppression, how can it be escaped, resisted, unmade?
Translation might be one answer. In the move from one language to another, the attempt to place a text or image or idea from the past in the present, or even (taking translation in a very broad sense) from one medium or genre to another, the act of translation opens little gaps that, with each word, phrase, sentence, chapter, even layout, cover, paratext, leave room for intervention.
Part of the English Strega’s power is no doubt attributable to the fact that both its writer and its translator are both writers and translators. Holm and Vogel are both (to use an increasingly common descriptor) writer-translators, which is clear in the utterly crisp prose of Strega in both the Swedish original and English translation. Both Holm and Vogel live, work, and write in a conglomerate of languages—including but not limited to Swedish, German, English, Danish, and Japanese—and the simultaneous infatuation with and detachment from words that comes with this kind of multilingual existence can be felt in the both the Swedish and English versions of the novel, amplifying its stylistic strangeness.
Holm translates between Swedish, Danish, English, German, and Japanese, and has published translations of works by Wedekind, Olga Ravn, Josefine Klougart, and Hiromi Itō, as well as her translator, Saskia Vogel’s novel, Permission (2019). Vogel is American and writes in English, but translates from Swedish and lives in Germany.
In the Swedish original, Holm’s linguistic precision bears the mark of a translator, of someone highly attuned to the valences of each word she uses, of someone who is practiced in weighing many alternatives, sifting through piles of words to find the one that fits exactly, like a puzzle piece clicking into place. Her prose is scraped down to a bare minimum, the prose of someone practiced in translation’s harrowing process of making crystals out of sludge.
In Vogel’s English translation, words are not merely shifted from one language to another but reverberate in a similar crystalline way. At first glance, the translation stays extremely close to the original—using constructions and idioms that are perhaps more at home in Swedish than in English: “one” as a pronoun, repetitive constructions like “it happened that” and so on (63). But these choices feel deliberate, like decisions carefully made.
Translating from Danish (which bears grammatical and syntactical, among other, similarities to Swedish), I’ve often been frustrated by the way the language becomes flat or overly simplistic in English if one attempts to stay too close to the original. A sentence that might feel utterly precise or novel in Danish or Swedish becomes simply banal in English. The Scandinavian languages have much fewer words than English does, and a single word or phrase can have many meanings, signal many valences and feelings under the surface. There can be a temptation, when translating from the Scandinavian languages into English, to add on, to explain, to flourish and exaggerate, to inject a singular meaning where there might have been many for the sake of precision, to change statements into questions and vice versa. But this too can have the effect of flattening the text, of removing its foreignness.
What I think is so brilliant about Vogel’s translation is how she takes the linguistic restraint of the original and reflects it yet again through the prism of the linguistic restraints of translation. There are so many odd sentences, and yet, unlike the odd sentences of a bad translation, it is impossible to imagine them otherwise.
If Strega, in Holm’s original Swedish, lets the girl speak by writing the prison, by articulating the many prisons of girlhood, Vogel’s careful translation extends this linguistic space of enclosure to another world, to a world which still can’t be imagined otherwise, begging the reader, as Rafa does, what if things could be otherwise: “In my head, the same thought repeated: What if one could be free? Walk in a different way, through city parks and department stores. I could walk in my yellow dress and not care about a thing” (172).
Holm, Johanne Lykke. Strega. Translated by Saskia Vogel. Riverhead Books and Lolli Editions, 2022.
Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg is a writer and literary translator. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Frieze, among other places, and her translation of Jonas Eika’s After the Sun was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley.