Guillou's fame in Sweden was established during his time as an investigative journalist. In 1973, he and co-reporter Peter Bratt exposed a secret intelligence organization in Sweden, Informationsbyrån (IB). He is still active within journalism as a column writer for the Swedish evening tabloid Aftonbladet.
Guillou was born in Södertälje, Stockholm County, Sweden. His Breton-Swedish father, Charles Guillou (born in 1922), came to Sweden as the son of the janitor at the French embassy in Stockholm. His mother, Marianne (née Botolfsen; 1922–2013), is of part-Norwegian descent. Guillou acquired French citizenship at birth and became a Swedish citizen in 1975. When Guillou's grandfather was offered a position at the French Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, his father decided to move with him and settled there. Guillou grew up with his mother and her new husband in Saltsjöbaden and Näsby Park outside of Stockholm.
He studied at Vasa Real in Stockholm but was expelled from the school because of his bad behaviour; including physical abuse, theft and blackmail. He then went on to study for two years at the Solbacka boarding school in Södermanland. He finished his studentexamen (upper-secondary final examination) from the boarding school Viggbyholmsskolan, located in Viggbyholm, in 1964. Guillou has described his upbringing, with the continuous physical abuse from his sadistic stepfather and the harsh treatment at the Solbacka school, in the semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan (1981). His mother, his sister, his teachers and his friends from the Solbacka school have contested his account and called the book a hoax.
Guillou was married first to the author and translator Marina Stagh, with whom he has two children, Dan (born 1970) and Ann-Linn (born 1972) Guillou. His daughter Ann-Linn, a journalist and feminist commentator, lives in a civil union with Sandra Andersson, daughter of film director Roy Andersson.
He is now married to publisher Ann-Marie Skarp. He has an apartment in the Östermalm district of Stockholm, where he has lived for most of his adult life. He also has a country residence in Flybo, Östhammar Municipality, northern Roslagen, where he lives when he writes his books.
Guillou started his career as a journalist writing for the magazine FIB aktuellt from 1966 to 1967. He later co-founded the Folket i Bild/Kulturfront magazine, at which he worked from 1972 until 1977. He currently writes a column for Aftonbladet and also comments occasionally in other news outlets on current events usually taking the left-wing and the Anti-American side, particularly the conflicts in the Middle East and miscellaneous domestic issues, including the United States' War on Terrorism, Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, the Swedish Security Service, Swedish courtroom procedures and public inquiries.
Guillou has served as the host of several television programmes: Magazinet (1981–1984), Rekordmagazinet (last years together with Göran Skytte) and Grabbarna på Fagerhult (together with Pär Lorentzon and Leif G. W. Persson), all shown on Sveriges Television.
He co-authored the crime/drama television series Talismanen (TV4, 2003). In the series, Guillou and co-author Henning Mankell both play the roles of themselves. Guillou also authored and narrated the history documentary series Arns rike (TV4, 2004) and Häxornas tid (TV4, 2005).
In 1973, Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, a left-wing magazine, published a series of articles written by Guillou and Peter Bratt, revealing a Swedish secret intelligence agency called Informationsbyrån ("The Information Bureau" or IB for short). The articles, based on information initially furnished by former IB employee Håkan Isacson, described the IB as a secret organization that gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be "security risks". The organization operated outside of the framework of the defense and ordinary intelligence, and was invisible in terms of state budget allocations. The articles in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront accused the IB staff of being engaged in alleged murder, break-ins, wiretapping against foreign embassies in Sweden and spying abroad.
The exposure of the IB in the magazine, which included headshots with names and social security numbers of some of the alleged staff published under the headline "Spies", led to a major domestic political scandal known as the "IB affair" (IB-affären). The activities ascribed to this secret outfit and its alleged ties to the Swedish Social Democratic Party were denied by Prime Minister Olof Palme, Defense Minister Sven Andersson and the chief of the Swedish defence forces, Stig Synnergren. However, later investigations by various journalists and by a public commissions, as well as autobiographies by the persons involved, have confirmed some of the activities described by Bratt and Guillou. In 2002, the public commission published a 3,000 page report where research about the IB-affair was included.
Guillou, Peter Bratt and Håkan Isacson were all arrested, tried in camera and convicted of espionage. According to Bratt, the verdict required some stretching of established judicial practice on the part of the court since none of them were accused of having acted in collusion with a foreign power. After one appeal Guillou's sentence was lessened from one year to 10 months. Guillou and Bratt served part of their sentence in solitary cells. Guillou was kept first at Långholmen Prison in central Stockholm and later at Österåker Prison north of the capital.
In 1976, two employees of Sveriges Radio contacted Guillou at Folket i Bild/Kulturfront with a story of a colleague that had been recruited by a CIA officer in Stockholm. They had earlier been turned down by a major newspaper, and now asked the journalist that had exposed IB if he could publish the story. The three worked out a scenario where the CIA recruiter could be legally accused of espionage, and instructed the recruit to collect evidence thereof. Unbelievable enough, the CIA officer agreed to give his spy written instructions of what information to retrieve, so the informal counter-intelligence group had only to stockpile these, take photographs of the two spies meeting, and discuss how much they needed before the final exposure would be made.
The recruited spy was at a later meeting instructed to go to Angola with orders to get information about both military and political conditions. The legally experienced within the group advised their double agent not to agree, but he went anyway. Afterwards, the group assembled to write a false report about the conditions in the civil war-ridden country. Before the three could finalize the entire story for publishing, the spy went to Angola a second time, now with additional tasks on his instruction sheet.
After the spy had returned to Sweden, Guillou in advance placed the article in a major newspaper and with a television news editor. He also contacted the Foreign Department in order to prevent official denials, and discuss the repercussions of the espionage exposure. The published article was a true 'scoop', and the CIA spy handler was ordered to leave Sweden together with a colleague. The spy himself, avoided prosecution thanks to the article's portrayal of him as a rather heroic journalist, exposing foreign illegal operations to the public. Afterwards, both he and Jan Guillou were interrogated by the Swedish Security Service, but for assumed political reasons, no criminal charges were made. This time, the system worked to the journalist's advantage.
During a five-year period starting at 1967 Jan Guillou had a series of meetings with KGB representatives. In October 2009 the Swedish news tabloid Expressen told this story under the headline "Guillou secret agent for Soviet Union". The Swedish security service Säpo at the time knew of the contacts from Guillou's colleague Arne Lemberg, who suspected the activities could be illegal.
According to Jan Guillou his intention was to expose the KGB espionage journalistically through a scoop based on the activities he was being exposed to and the discussions he had with his KGB contact Jevgenij Gergel. One of the journalists who wrote the articles later commented that he believed Guillou's explanation, ”I do not doubt one word of what he has said”.
Guillou received payment from KGB for written reports on Swedish politics, and Expressen points to this fact when defending its choice to refer to Guillou as a secret agent”. Former KGB Colonel and defector Sergey Tretyakov characterised Guillou as a "classic agent". "Because he accepted money and, worst of all, signed receipts, there's no question about it. The handling of him could be a schoolbook example at the KGB school in Moscow". Espionage prosecutor Tomas Lindstrand wrote to PON that "Agent and spy are not synonymous ideas .... an agent does not have to commit acts of espionage. An agent can perform assignments for his handler without crossing the line to what is prosecutable."
Säpo at the time was skeptical towards Lemberg's report and commented that it found nothing illegal in a newspaper man writing an article based on public information and delivering it to Jevgenij Gergel. The statute of limitation prevents new charges from being filed today.
The public Ombudsman of the Swedish Press, Yrsa Stenius, later concluded that Expressen's presentation of facts had been an example of irresponsible journalism. According to her, Expressen had not backed up its frontpage assertion, that "Jan Guillou [was a] Secret Soviet Agent", despite the fact that this had caused "massive" damage to Guillou's reputation. Stenius's conclusion caused controversy, and a number of newspaper leader writers demanded that she resign her post.
On 1 June 2010 The Swedish Press Council [PON] acquitted Expressen of wrongdoing. Expressen denies having claimed that Guillou was guilty of the crime of ”espionage”, and PON agrees. The frontpage and headline assertions (”Guillou Secret Soviet Agent”, ”Confesses KGB mission”, ”Recruited by chief of espionage”) according to PON ”do not have well defined meanings”. PON was also satisfied that the factual details of the story were fully covered in the text of the articles which also included Guillou's own account of the events.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Guillou was associated with the Maoist Clarté association. He was also a member of the Communist Party of Sweden (formerly known as the Communist League Marxists-Leninists), a minor Maoist party active mainly during the 1970s, for six months until he was expelled for refusing to pay the monthly member fee while he was living abroad. Today, he no longer considers himself a Communist or a Maoist, but describes himself as socialist with a position on the political spectrum "to the left of the Left Party" (a Swedish party formerly known as "The Left Party, the Communists").
Guillou is known for his support of the Palestinian people, and he has over the years consistently criticized Israel. In 1976, he wrote, "Zionism is in its foundation racist because the state of Israel is built upon an apartheid system, exactly like South Africa". He has repeatedly taken the stance that Israel is an "apartheid state". In an article published in Svenska Dagbladet in 1977, Guillou wrote, "I'm an optimist, I believe that Israel will cease to exist prior to Armageddon".
The book Irak – det nya Arabien (Iraq – The New Arabia), written by Guillou and his then-wife Marina Stagh, was published in 1977. In the book, which deals with Iraq under the Baath Party before Saddam Hussein's presidency, it is argued that the "European idea of Iraq as a particularly violent country" is simply "a blend of political propaganda and racist fantasies" (p. 91). Guillou and Stagh did the research for the book in 1975 and they assert that, at this time, "the Baath regime is clearly popular and among the most stable in the Arab World" (pp. 168–169), the freedom of the press enjoyed in Iraq was more extensive than in most other countries in the world (p. 239) and it would come as no surprise to the authors if "well before the year 2000, Iraq will have surpassed European countries in living standards" (p. 174).
The conditions at the Abu Ghraib prison, which Guillou claims to have visited as the first Western journalist, are described as excellent and even "better than Swedish prisons" (pp. 249–250). The book was published two years before Saddam Hussein became President of Iraq in 1979. In his 2009 autobiography, Ordets makt och vanmakt (The Power and Powerlessness of the Word), Guillou states that quotes such as the ones cited could be considered true back then. He does however also write that Saddam Hussein, who at the time of publishing was the vice-president under President Ahmed Hassan Al Bakr, was the actual leader of Iraq.
Immediately following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Guillou caused controversy when he walked out of the Göteborg Book Fair in the midst of the three minutes of silence observed throughout Europe to honour the victims of the attacks. In an article in Aftonbladet, Guillou argued that the event was an act of hypocrisy, stating that "the U.S. is the great mass murderer of our time. The wars against Vietnam and its nearby countries alone claimed four million lives. Without a minute of silence in Sweden". He also criticised those who said that the attacks were "an attack on us all" by stating that the attacks were only "an attack on U.S. imperialism".
He labeled the media's reaction to the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot and the measures taken to avoid havoc at the airports unnecessary since the suspects had already been caught. He argued that the media coverage was sensationalist and driven by profit considerations, and that the British government used the occasion to give an impression of success in the War on Terrorism. Pointing out that no explosives had been found, he wrote in a column headlined "Don't believe anything written about al-Qaida" that the reactions had resulted in a victimization of the Muslim community.
Ever since the IB affair and the resulting prison sentence for espionage in 1973, Guillou has been a strong critic of the Swedish Security Service. According to Guillou, the Security Service has listed him as a terrorist, which has led to problems with security officials when visiting other countries.
In recent years, Guillou has repeatedly criticised some people and groups within the Swedish radical feminist movement. However, he rejects being called an "antifeminist".
Guillou has also attracted controversy over his views on homosexuality. He has said that "homosexuality is more of a vogue phenomenon than something you're born into. It's something that has come and gone through history" and that "homosexuality didn't exist in the 17th century".
Guillou's first book, Om kriget kommer, was published in 1971.
In 1986 Guillou published a novel about the fictional Swedish military spy Carl Hamilton. Guillou's fictional hero was originally drafted and trained to become an attack diver, but was later chosen for special training in California to become a U.S. Navy SEAL. He has a leftist background and was dubbed Coq Rouge by one of his superiors while he was temporarily working for the security police forces (Säkerhetspolisen). The first Coq Rouge novel came to be followed by another eleven books.
Several characters in the books are based on actual people. Jan Guillou himself is the basis of a character named Erik Ponti, which is also the name Guillou uses in the autobiographical novel Ondskan (literally: The Evil).The Coq Rouge novels
Coq Rouge – berättelsen om en svensk spion (1986) (literally: Coq Rouge – the story of a Swedish spy)
Den demokratiske terroristen (1987) (English translation: The Democratic Terrorist)
I nationens intresse (1988) (English translation: In the interest of the nation)
Fiendens fiende (1989; English translation: Enemy's Enemy by Thomas Keeland, 1992)
Den hedervärde mördaren (1990) (English translation: The honourable murderer)
Ingen mans land (1992) (English translation: No man's land)
Den enda segern (1993) (English translation: The only victory)
I hennes majestäts tjänst (1994) (English translation: In Her Majesty's service)
The feminine "hennes majestät" in this case refers to the queen of Britain.
En medborgare höjd över varje misstanke (1995) (English translation: A citizen raised above every suspicion)
Madame Terror (2006)
Men inte om det gäller din dotter (2008) (English translation: But not if it concerns your daughter)
A partial draft of an eleventh novel, along with Guillou's account on why it could not be completed, was published as Hamlon in 1995. Guillou stated that En medborgare höjd över varje misstanke was the last book and in order to make sure that Hamilton would never return, Guillou "banished" him from Sweden through a life sentence. Since he only intended to write about Sweden, no other book would be possible. However, when he was working on Madame Terror, he realised that he needed Hamilton to fill in a specific role. After Hamilton had been revived as a character, he made another major appearance in Men inte om det gäller din dotter, where his life sentence was lifted. Guillou thereby cleared the way for new appearances by Hamilton in future books.Film and TV adaptations based on Hamilton
Codename Coq Rouge, portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård (1989)
Förhöret, portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård (television, 1989) (English translation: The interrogation)
The Democratic Terrorist (TV series), with Humberto López y Guerra (1989)
Enemy's Enemy, portrayed by Peter Haber (television miniseries 1990)
The Democratic Terrorist (film), portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård (1992)
Vendetta, portrayed by Stefan Sauk (1995)
Tribunal, portrayed by Stefan Sauk (television, 1995)
Hamilton, portrayed by Peter Stormare (1998, television miniseries 2001)
Hamilton – I nationens intresse, portrayed by Mikael Persbrandt (2012)
After finishing the Coq Rouge series, Guillou wrote a trilogy about Arn Magnusson, a fictional Swedish character from the Middle Ages forced to become a Knight Templar. The series is an account of the life of Arn Magnusson, a fictional character who becomes a witness as well as a catalyst to many important historical events, both in his homeland of Sweden and in the crusades against the Middle East. The trilogy, dubbed the Crusades trilogy, consists of the following books:The Road to Jerusalem, originally Vägen till Jerusalem (1998)
The Knight Templar, originally Tempelriddaren (1999), ISBN 0-7528-4650-7
The Kingdom at the End of the Road, originally Riket vid vägens slut (2000)
Guillou also wrote a follow-up novel about Birger Jarl, founder of Stockholm, entitled The Heritage of Arn (Arvet efter Arn, 2001). In Guillou's fictional universe, Birger Jarl is the grandson of Arn Magnusson.
Guillou has written an autobiographical book about his school years, Ondskan (1981), which also became a film, Evil (2003). The movie was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003. Guillou, still listed as a terrorist by the US government, was unable to attend. He managed to get a visa, but it was linked to attending the Academy Award ceremony, and director Mikael Håfström had already given Guillou's ticket to his own wife instead.
This series about humanity's greatest, cruelest and bloodiest century starts in 1900 with three boys from a poor fishing village in Norway, and follows them and, in later books, their children to Germany, England, Africa and Sweden. It touches on ambitious engineering projects, colonialism in Africa, communities of artists, the world wars, underground resistance, espionage, nuclear threat and Vietnam protests.Brobyggarna ("The Bridge Builders") (2011)
Mellan rött och svart ("Between Red and Black") (2013)
Att inte vilja se ("Not Wanting to See") (2014)
Blå stjärnan ("The Blue Star") (2015)
Äkta amerikanska jeans ("Real American Jeans") (2016)
1984 – Stora Journalistpriset ("Great Journalist Award"), for his writings in the Keith Cederholm-case
1984 – Aftonbladets TV-pris ("Aftonbladet TV Award"), in the category "Male Television Person of the Year"
1988 – Bästa svenska kriminalroman ("Best Swedish Crime Novel") from the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers, for I nationens intresse
1990 – Prix France Culture ("France Culture Award") from France Culture, for Ondskan (awarded as best novel translated into French)
1998 – Årets författare ("Author of the Year") from the Swedish Union of Local Government Officers
2000 – Årets bok ("Book of the Year") from Månadens Bok, for Riket vid vägens slut
2014 – Lenin price from Jan Myrdal society, (Culture Award)
Guillou was also chairman of the Swedish Publicists' Association (Publicistklubben) from 2000 to 2004.