A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012/en-2014) (read in 2017)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is the story of Ove, a man living in a town on the outskirts of a city in Sweden. Ove likes things predictable and can’t see why anyone would want it any other way. Other people are distractions and annoyances and constantly disappointing. The story is told in the third person, but from the viewpoint of a 59-year–old Ove. Some of the chapters are flashbacks to help readers understand why Ove is the way he is, how it’s possible for him to be at once cantankerous beyond all imagining and also a generous person.
His life arc starts with a mother who dies too soon and being raised until 16 by a father he honors and worships, until his father, too, is taken away by the grim reaper. Ove takes over his father’s job and his lifestyle, simple and direct, working hard and sticking to rigid principle. Most appreciate him for his work and attitude and forthrightness but there are opponents, one of whom, Tom, eventually leads him to lose his job. He learns construction during the day while cleaning trains at night. He meets Sonja, from then on his only reason for waking and drawing breath. She is likewise—and for all of her friends, mysteriously—enchanted. Though he doesn’t say much, he listens well—and he is bulky with workman’s muscle to compensate for his taciturnity.
They make a life together, moving in to the district where Ove lives in the present, with life dealing them one raw deal after another. They go to Spain on holiday, where a pregnant Sonja takes siestas with gusto while Ove wanders the countryside, making himself useful with his skills despite an almost complete language barrier. On the way home, the bus crashes, taking their unborn child as well as Sonja’s ability to walk. Nevertheless, they weather these tragedies well enough, settling into a happy and comfortable routine. The world begins to outpace Ove, with his dedication to fine craftsmanship in homes and cars seeing less and less value in the real world, a world filled with distracted idiots, flitting between ephemeral obsessions. This includes his new neighbors with whom he has entirely too much to do—the Pregnant Foreign Woman and the Lanky Fool with their two children. Throw into the mix a Bent and unwanted Housemate, a Mailman who doesn’t understand propriety or boundaries and a cat who seems to embody Sonja’s now-passed–on conscience.
Ove wants nothing more than to join Sonja wherever she’s ended up after succumbing to cancer but his neighbors manage to distract him from several attempts at ending it all, always in the nick of time. Ove grudgingly finds himself useful again, even loved. He teaches Parvaneh to drive, he helps Anders fix a bike and buy a car, he teaches a bigoted father to stop being a jackass and to be happy he has a son at all. He continues to be the man that Sonja always knew him to be. Until, eventually, and after a few years of a second life, he finally joins her.
“She had a golden brooch pinned to her dress, in which the sunlight reflected hypnotically through the train window. […] Ove had just clocked off his shift and was actually supposed to be taking the train the other way. But then he saw her on the platform with all her rich auburn hair and her blue eyes and all her effervescent laughter. And he got back on the outbound train. Of course, he didn’t quite know himself why he was doing it. He had never been spontaneous before in his life. But when he saw her it was as if something malfunctioned.
“He didn’t know what he was going to say. But he had hardly had time to sink into the seat before she turned to him cheerfully, smiled warmly , and said hello. And he found he was able to say hello back to her without any significant complications.”
“Chastened by recent experiences, he did not take the Saab, but walked instead to the station. Because this time neither Pregnant Foreign Woman, Blond Weed, Rune’s wife,
nor low-quality rope would be given an opportunity of ruining Ove’s morning He’d bled these people’s radiators, loaned them his things, given them lifts to the hospital. But now he was finally on his way.”
“He checked the timetable once more. He hated being late. It ruined the planning. Made everything out of step. His wife had been utterly useless at it, keeping to plans. But it was always like that with women. They couldn’t stick to a plan even if you glued them to it, Ove had learned. When he was driving somewhere he drew up schedules and plans and decided where they’d fill up and when they’d stop for coffee, all in the interest of making the trip as time-efficient as possible. He studied maps and estimated exactly how long each leg of the journey would take and how they should avoid rush-hour traffic and the shortcuts to take that people with GPS systems wouldn’t be able to make head nor tail of. Ove always had a clear travel strategy. His wife, on the other hand, always came up with insanities like “going by a sense of feel” and “taking it easy.” As if that was a way for an adult person to get anywhere in life. […] And when Ove got disgruntled she always had to challenge the importance of having a time plan when driving somewhere. “We’re not in a hurry anyway,” she’d say. As if that had anything to do with it.”
“Ove doesn’t answer. He walks past the man behind the Plexiglas, back out into the snow-covered streets, and starts walking home.
“The town slowly wakes up around him with its foreign-made cars and its statistics and credit-card debt and all its other crap.
“And so this day was also ruined, he confirms with bitterness.”
“As for Ove, he felt he was at a job interview, and he had never been very good at that sort of thing. So when Sonja wasn’t talking, which admittedly she did almost all of the time, there was a sort of silence in the room that can only arise between a man who does not want to lose his daughter and a man who has not yet completely understood that he has been chosen to take her away from there.”
“He hears voices from the living room. He can hardly believe his ears. Considering how they are constantly preventing him from dying, these neighbors of his are certainly not shy when it comes to driving a man to the brink of madness and suicide. That’s for sure.
“When Ove comes back down the stairs with the blanket in his hand, the overweight young man from next door is standing in the middle of his living room, looking with curiosity at the cat and Parvaneh.
““Okay,” says Ove, silently appalled that you can pop upstairs for a moment only to find when you come back down that you’ve apparently started a bed-and-breakfast operation.”
“But Sonja loved Ernest so unconditionally that Ove managed to keep this kind of perfectly sensible observation to himself. He knew better than to speak ill of what she loved; after all he understood very keenly how it was to receive her love when no one else could understand why he was worthy of it.”
“Ove looks at the group assembled around him, as if he’s been kidnapped and taken to a parallel universe. For a moment he thinks about swerving off the road, until he realizes that the worst-case scenario would be that they all accompanied him into the afterlife. After this insight, he reduces his speed and increases the gap significantly between his own car and the one in front.”
“He’s silent. And then they both stand there, the fifty-nine-year-old and the teenager, a few yards apart, kicking at the snow. As if they were kicking a memory back and forth,
a memory of a woman who insisted on seeing more potential in certain men than they saw in themselves. Neither of them knows what to do with the shared experience.”
“Everyone seems to be thinking the same thing: If a non-throat-tattooed man of Ove’s age without any hesitation steps up to a throat-tattooed man of the age of this Throat Tattoo and presses him up against a car in this manner, then it’s very likely not the throat-tattooed man one should be worried about annoying.”
“"Now, you listen to me,“ says Ove calmly while he carefully close the door. “You’ve given birth to two children and quite soon you’ll be squeezing out a third. You’ve come here from a land far away and most likely you fled war and persecution and all sorts of other nonsense. You’ve learned a new language and got yourself an education and you’re holding together a family of obvious incompetents. And I’ll be damned if I’ve seen you afraid of a single bloody thing in this world before now.”
“Ove rivets his eyes into her. Parvaneh is still agape. Ove points imperiously at the pedals under the feet.
““I’m not asking for brain surgery. I’m asking you to drive a car. It’s got an accelerator, a brake, and a clutch. Some of the greatest twits in world history have sorted out how it works. And you will as well.
“Because you are not a complete twit.””
“And Ove didn’t know exactly when he became so quiet. He’d always been taciturn, but this was something quite different. Maybe he had started talking more inside his own head. Maybe he was going insane (he did wonder sometimes). It was as if he didn’t want other people to talk to him, he was afraid that their chattering voices would drown out the memory of her voice.”
“The man in the white shirt smiles in a superior manner. The way men in white shirts, who are used to always having things their own way, smile when someone tries to disagree with them.
““Move it at once.”
““I don’t think so,” says Ove.
“The man in the white shirt sighs, as if the threatening statement he makes after that were directed at a child.
““Move the trailer, Ove. Or I’ll call the police.”
“Ove shakes his head nonchalantly, pointing at the sign farther down the road.
““Motor vehicles prohibited inside the residential area. It says so clearly on the sign.”
““Don’t you have anything better to do than standing out here pretending to be the foreman?” groans the man in the white shirt.
““There was nothing good on TV,” says Ove.
“And that’s when there’s a little twitch at the temple of the man in the white shirt. As if his mask has slipped a little, just a fraction. He looks at the trailer, his boxed in Škoda, the sign, Ove standing in front of him with his arms crossed. […]
““This was very silly of you, Ove. This was very, very silly,” he hisses finally.”
This part reminded me very much of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“It’s as if all the energy in Ove’s body is draining out of him even as he stands there.
“Maybe it’s the sight of Anita’s worn-out face. Maybe it’s the insight that a simple battle won is nothing in the greater scheme of things. A boxed-in Škoda makes no difference. They always come back.
Just like they did with Sonja. Like they always do. With their clauses and documents. Men in white shirts always win. And men like Ove always lose people like Sonja. And nothing can bring her back to him.”
“So this should have been the day Ove finally died. Instead it became the evening before the morning when he woke with not only a cat but also a bent person living in his row house. Sonja would have liked it, most likely. She liked hotels.”
“And now Ove stands by Sonja’s gravestone and manages to say something about how sorry he is.
““You get so damned worked up when I fight with people, I know that. But the reality of it is this. You’ll just have to wait a bit longer for me up there. I don’t have time to die right now.”
“Then he digs up the old, frozen pink flowers out of the ground, plants the new ones, straightens up,
folds up his deck chair, and walks towards the parking area while muttering something that sounds suspiciously like “because there’s a bloody war on.””
“There wasn’t much wrong with the meal last night, he can stretch to admitting that. Although Ove doesn’t feel there’s a need to make such a palaver about cooking, as Parvaneh does. Meat and potatoes and gravy are perfectly adequate. But if one has to complicate things like she does, Ove could possible agree that her rice with saffron is reasonably edible. It is. So he had two portions of it. And the cat had one and a half.”
“In the meantime Jimmy, Mirsad, and Patrick have managed to squeeze into Adrian’s new car in front of them. A Toyota. Hardly and optimal choice of car for any kind of thinking person, Ove had pointed out to him many times while they stood there at the dealership. But at least it wasn’t French. And Ove managed to get the price reduced by almost eight thousand kronor and made sure that the kid got winter tires thrown in for the same price. So it seemed acceptable, in spite of it all.
“When Ove got to the dealership the bloody kid had been checking out a Hyundai. So it could have been worse.”