If a book is always a manifestation of a certain culture, “What We Leave Behind – The Swedish Art of Minimalism and Detachment”, by Margareta Magnusson, perfectly illustrates this maxim and could only have been written by a Swede. In this case, an 83-year-old Swede.
The premise of this literary debut is simple: to teach the concept of “dödstädning” (literally, the cleaning of death), the organization of goods and objects of a person at the end of life, with the aim of making things easier for those who remain. Nothing is more characteristic of the collectivist Scandinavian country than proposing to think of others until the very end.
The work is also a reflection of the stoicism with which Swedes deal with death, an inevitability that still causes widespread discomfort around the world —which is evident in the Brazilian translation and also in other languages.
The book becomes “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Save Yourself and Your Family from a Life of Rubble” in English and “Life in Order: The Art of Organizing Your Life to Ease the Lives of Others” in French. Well, the English version at least kept the word death.
But, after all, would this be a recommended reading for old people at the end of life, as the author deduces in the preface? Absolutely not. Organized into concise, self-explanatory chapters, “What We Left Behind” is an easy, enjoyable read that offers insights for readers of any age.
Magnusson is an insightful and humorous writer who, between quoting ABBA, Leonard Cohen and teaching Swedish words, offers tips that can help anyone reduce the accumulation of possessions in their lives.
As the author argues, tidying up does not mean passing a cloth here, another there. It is a permanent form of organization that allows everyday life to become lighter: “there is nothing more healthy and comforting than being in a tidy place”. If everything has its place, tidying up becomes the simple activity of returning it to its home.
But we are not looking at Marie Kondo, the Japanese guru who conquered the world with her strategic manual for organizing drawers and cupboards. Magnusson does not describe a systematic method, nor will he teach the reader how to fold his clothes. The English translation is right about this: the book is more art than a manual.
An artist by training, the Swede shares with the reader a little of what she has learned from life, her five children and the 17 house moves she has made around the world.
The book brings tips on where to start a tidying up —always with the “mess cupboard”, where things are placed to quickly get rid of the turmoil— and also where never to start —with photographs, at the risk of not getting up from the sunken sofa anymore in memories.
There are suggestions on possible destinations for unwanted items and ways to brighten someone else’s life with second-hand gifts. And even methods of reevaluating your closet, considering size, style, and fads.
Some specific descriptions for Sweden make reading more curious than useful: the annual day to sell books in Stockholm, the lack of light in November to pick plants or what to do with your husband’s garage full of tools, something typically Scandinavian.
The Brazilian reader will even take a quick trip to Mars when listening to a woman who raised five children without a nanny giving tips on how to organize the hall with a hook and a box for each child to store their boots and coats.
But ultimately, the book’s central theme is universal: deciding what to keep and what to throw away, whether you are, in the author’s words, “moving house, country, or the Great Beyond!”
Ideally, “What We Leave Behind” will teach readers a valuable insight into Swedish culture that leads to a powerful conclusion: by learning to die, maybe we can live better. At worst, it will be an enjoyable read about a witty old lady with a lot of story to tell.