A few years ago I read Jonas Jonasson’s debut novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Windows and Disappeared. The book was a marked success for Jonas, selling over 3.5 million copies worldwide, with translations into 35 languages. The success was seemingly deserved, and I did enjoy the dark (and quite frankly ridiculous) nature of comedy which made the book so unique to me.
When I discovered that a second book had been published, I was curious as to how this new book would work in comparison to its predecessor. Would it also be a comedic, sarcastic tone of writing? Would it also focus on a character who, stereotypically, would be included in a minority and thus make a surprising choice of protagonist? Naturally I purchased the book, where admittedly it did sit on my shelf for a prolonged period. Now, however, I can finally share my thoughts.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – note the recurrent theme of self explanatory book titles here – follows the story of Nombeko Mayeki, a young girl born in a Soweto shack in 1961, and a girl whose birth should typically have been proceeded by a life of hard labour and little chance of development. Yet, as the title suggests, Nomeko is destined for more than her current role working in a latrine office for the Sanitation Department. With the cocktail combination of chance, luck and excellent mathematical skills, we watch Nombeko as her life begins an adventure which will involve secret agents, world politics, nuclear weapons, the aforementioned King of Sweden, and even love.
The first few pages of this book sees the establishment of the author’s voice, not unlike his previous book. We immediately gather a sense of the omniscient narrator’s sarcastic, yet humorous voice. Only a few pages in and we read how a Pastor, growing weary of attempting to save a man from the sins he has committed, goes down ‘to the river to save a hippopotamus’. We are told this man ‘cautiously laid a hand on the animal’s nose and said that Jesus was prepared to – ’ (p.14). Yet here the lexicon is broken, as our narrator concisely explains that ‘This was as far as he got before the hippopotamus opened his mouth and bit him in half’. This single, highly ironic example is just a snippet of the sarcastic, blunt, and often witty tone in which the novel is saturated, and is a style which I did find initially enjoyable.
The major issue I have with this book is the question of originality. About fifty pages into this book and I honestly felt that I was reading something which I had already experienced before in Jonasson’s first book, except to a lesser quality. If you could switch this young, African girl, with Jonasson’s aging, 100 year old man, the books would have merged into a blur of their own accord. Yet again we are shown an underdog of sorts, whose life yet again takes an inexplicably surprising turn, yet again involving historical figures, politics, and even (yet again) nuclear weapons. To put it honestly, I was bored. Fifty pages in and I felt that I already knew where the story would take me, and the incredulous and unbelievable scenarios that would ensure. I could already foresee the direction in which the sarcastic, often predictable comedy would head. I am sorry to say that I was not wrong.
That’s not to say that this book is completely without merit. The writing style is not hugely literary or lyrical, but it does contain a dry brittleness that can often be quite refreshing. Yet perhaps the book’s best quality was the way in which Jonasson intertwines both historical and political fragments into his narrative. The book is quite literally studded with figures representative of this, including Nelson Mandela, President James Earl Carter Junior, Regan, Thatcher, President Botha, and many many more. In fact, perhaps too many. If you do not have a solid grasp on political and historical world affairs, you well run the risk of drowning under the heavily influence of these figures. While the use of these undercurrents can still be somewhat entertaining, and to a degree even factual, there seems to be a sense that unless you already have a knowledge of certain events, you run the risk of missing and appreciating the witty comments which are often made. Contrastingly, for a member of Western Society, this did provide more about African history and politics than someone might otherwise ever learn, and is provided in a way which does attempt to be simultaneously amusing and enlightening.
Whilst I can acknowledge that this book does have certain merits, they did not manage to make up for the disappointment I felt upon finishing this book. I quickly grew bored of the major plot similarities in Jonas Jonasson’s work, and sadly I did have to push myself harder than should be required to finish a book. Jonasson now has another book out, Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All, but I hold very little desire to delve into its pages.
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers)