A MAN CALLED OVE (2014/15)
By Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, 368 pp.
* * * * *
Is there a more clichéd line in the history of reviewing than: “I laughed, I cried?” I don’t care how hackneyed it sounds; my experience of reading A Man Called Ove was exactly that. It would be woefully inadequate to say I liked this book; I LOVED this book.
Swedish blogger Fredrik Backman’s debut novel introduces us to Ove, the greatest crank/eccentric since Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Ove is a brooding man of few words, until it comes to the principles that are at the core of his being. He’s out place in a world of computers, but he has opinions about them. You certainly don’t want to get him started on what he thinks of the kind of person who doesn’t know how to bleed a radiator, hang a proper hook, fix a bicycle, back up a van, or—horror of horrors—would drive a Volvo instead of a Saab. Things that have no purpose have no place in Ove’s world and he’s had it up to his eyeteeth in the “stupidity” that assaults him daily. And there is the special contempt he holds for the “white shirts,” their petty regulations, their impracticality, their big schemes, their haughty demeanor, and their amoral ways. If you have to ask Ove if he’s honest, you’re exactly the sort of person with whom it’s a waste of time to converse.
We meet Ove as he’s on his daily and highly regimented rounds around the neighborhood. He’s 59 and has recently been forcibly retired by a group of white shirts who think they’ve acted in his best interest. Harrumph! As if they’d know what a man like Ove needs! I found myself bursting into laughter at Ove’s ever-growing list of what’s wrong with the world that he assembles from his morning perambulations. If a bicycle chained to a sign sets him off, imagine what happens when someone takes a vehicle into an unauthorized area. In Backman’s lithe prose, we can easily conjure neck veins on the verge of bursting. Ove ponders the question of who needs to be part of such an idiotic world and concludes that he certainly doesn’t.
Backman chooses an unusual comedy of errors setup for his novel. Each time Ove vows that today will be his last, some “annoyance” occurs that interrupts his suicide plans. Among them: a man named Patrik (“the lanky one”) who backs over the non-flowers in Ove’s non-flower bed; Patrik's pregnant wife Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant who already has two bothersome young daughters; a heavyset neighbor named Jimmy; a teenager who wants to fix a bike; an outlaw mailman named Adrian; a man who falls on the railway tracks; a nosy reporter; a dementia-suffering neighbor named Rune who is both Ove’s best friend and someone to whom he sometimes didn’t speak for years; and a mangy half-frozen moggy Ove calls Cat Annoyance.
Ove’s rants are first-rate comedy, but I reserve my own outburst for “idiots” (an Ove word) who’ve reviewed this book and said they didn’t like it because Ove was “unlikable.” What stupidity! (Another Ove word.) About the time you think Ove is like Ignatius J. Reilly; that is, a mildly demented misanthrope, small parts of his life are slowly unspooled and these will tear out your heart and stomp it into the Swedish snows. There’s a moment in the book where Ove breaks character to punch a man who has blamed Ove for his own misdeeds. It’s against his principles to fight, but Ove reasons, “A time like this comes for all men, when they choose what sort of man they want to be.” That line is, in many ways, the theme of the book and you should not assume that Ove is that man. What if he had become the man he wanted to be, but that life was taken from him? How would you cope if the things that gave your life “purpose” (yes—another Ove word), joy, and sense were wrenched from you? We glibly use phrases such as “time to move on,” but do we ask, “Why?” Or “How?”
This book is sometimes compared to another small gem, The Unlikely Voyage of Harold Fry, which is apt in sentiment, though A Man Named Ove is much funnier. Read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Rob Weir