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A man called ove a novel, p.12
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.12

           Fredrik Backman
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  two firearms in the isolated wooden house out there in the woods, they would most likely have been a bit pushier. But none of them had looked at her the way that boy looked at her when he sat down beside her on the train. As if she were the only girl in the world.

  Sometimes, especially in the first few years, some of her girlfriends questioned the choice she had made. Sonja was very beautiful, as the people around her seemed to find it so important to keep telling her. Furthermore she loved to laugh and, whatever life threw at her, she was the sort of person who took a positive view of it. But Ove was, well, Ove was Ove. Something the people around her also kept telling Sonja.

  He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted. And she could have someone so much better.

  But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged. To her, he was the slightly disheveled pink flowers at their first dinner. He was his father’s slightly too tight-fitting brown suit across his broad, sad shoulders. He believed so strongly in things: justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right. Not so one could get a medal or a diploma or a slap on the back for it, but just because that was how it was supposed to be. Not many men of his kind were made anymore, Sonja had understood. So she was holding on to this one. Maybe he didn’t write her poems or serenade her with songs or come home with expensive gifts. But no other boy had gone the wrong way on the train for hours every day just because he liked sitting next to her while she spoke.

  And when she took hold of his lower arm, thick as her thigh, and tickled him until that sulky boy’s face opened up in a smile, it was like a plaster cast cracking around a piece of jewelry, and when this happened it was as if something started singing inside Sonja. And they belonged only to her, those moments.

  She didn’t get angry with him that first night they had dinner, when he told her he’d lied about his military service. Of course, she got angry with him on an immeasurable number of occasions after that, but not that night.

  “They say the best men are born out of their faults and that they often improve later on, more than if they’d never done anything wrong,” she’d said gently.

  “Who said that?” asked Ove and looked at the triple set of cutlery in front of him on the table, the way one might look at a box that had just been opened while someone said, “Choose your weapon.”

  “Shakespeare,” said Sonja.

  “Is that any good?” Ove wondered.

  “It’s fantastic.” Sonja nodded, smiling.

  “I’ve never read anything with him,” mumbled Ove into the tablecloth.

  “By him,” Sonja corrected, and lovingly put her hand on his.

  In their almost four decades together Sonja taught hundreds of pupils with learning difficulties to read and write, and she got them to read Shakespeare’s collected works. In the same period she never managed to make Ove read a single Shakespeare play. But as soon as they moved into their row house he spent every evening for weeks on end in the toolshed. And when he was done, the most beautiful bookcases she had ever seen were in their living room.

  “You have to keep them somewhere,” he muttered, and poked a little cut on his thumb with the tip of a screwdriver.

  And she crept into his arms and said that she loved him.

  And he nodded.

  She only asked once about the burns on his arms.

  And she had to piece together the exact circumstances of how he lost his parental home, from the succinct fragments on offer when Ove reluctantly revealed what had happened. In the end she found out how he got the scars. And when one of her girlfriends asked why she loved him she answered that most men ran away from an inferno. But men like Ove ran into it.

  Ove did not meet Sonja’s father more times than he could count on his fingers. The old man lived a long way north, a good way into the forest, almost as if he had consulted a map of all the population centers in the country before concluding that this was as far from other people as one could live.

  Sonja’s mother had died in the maternity bed. Her father never remarried.

  “I have a woman. She is just not home at the moment,” he spat out the few times anyone dared bring up the question.

  Sonja moved to the local town when she started studying for her upper secondary examinations—all in humanities subjects—at a sixth-form college. Her father looked at her with boundless indignation when she suggested that he might like to come with her. “What can I do there? Meet folk?” he growled. He always spoke the word “folk” as if it were a swear word. So Sonja let him be. Apart from her weekend visits and his monthly trip in the truck to the grocery store in the nearest village, he only had Ernest for company.

  Ernest was the biggest farm cat in the world. When Sonja was small she actually thought he was a pony. He came and went in her father’s house as he pleased, but he didn’t live there. Where he lived, in fact, was not known to anyone. Sonja named him Ernest after Ernest Hemingway. Her father had never bothered with books, but when his daughter sat reading the newspaper at the age of five he wasn’t so stupid that he tried to avoid doing something about it. “A girl can’t read shit like that: she’ll lose her head,” he stated as he pushed her towards the library counter in the village. The old librarian didn’t quite know what he meant by that, but there was no doubt about the girl’s quite outstanding intellect.

  The monthly trip to the grocery store simply had to be extended to a monthly trip to the library, the librarian and father decided together, without any particular need to discuss it further. By the time Sonja passed her twelfth birthday she had read all the books at least twice. The ones she liked, such as The Old Man and the Sea, she’d read so many times that she’d lost count.

  So Ernest ended up being called Ernest. And no one owned him. He didn’t talk, but he liked to go fishing with her father, who appreciated his qualities. They would share the catch equally once they got home.

  The first time Sonja brought Ove out to the old wooden house in the forest, Ove and her father sat in buttoned-up silence opposite each other, staring down at their food for almost an hour, while she tried to encourage some form of civilized conversation. Neither of the men could quite understand what they were doing there, apart from the fact that it was important to the only woman either of them cared about. They had both protested about the whole arrangement, insistently and vociferously, but without success.

  Sonja’s father was negatively disposed from the very beginning. All he knew about this boy was that he came from town and that Sonja had mentioned that he did not like cats very much. These were two characteristics, as far as he was concerned, that gave him reason enough to view Ove as unreliable.

  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. Finally Sonja kicked Ove’s shinbone to make him say something. Ove looked up from his plate and noted the angry twitches around the edges of her eyes. He cleared his throat and looked around with a certain desperation to find something to ask this old man about. Because this was what Ove had learned: if one didn’t have anything to say, one had to find something to ask. If there was one thing that made people forget to dislike one, it was when they were given the opportunity to talk about themselves.

  At long last Ove’s gaze fell on the truck, visible through the old man’s kitchen window.

  “That’s an L10, isn’t it?” he said, pointing with his fork.

  “Yup,” said the old man, looking down at his plate.

  “Saab is making them now,” Ove stated with a short nod.

  “Scania!” the old man roared, glaring at Ove.

  And the room was once again overwhelmed by that silence which can only arise between a w
oman’s beloved and her father.

  Ove looked down grimly at his plate. Sonja kicked her father on his shin. Her father looked back at her grumpily. Until he saw those twitches around her eyes. He was not so stupid a man that he had not learned to avoid what tended to happen after them. So he cleared his throat irately and picked at his food.

  “Just because some suit at Saab waved his wallet around and bought the factory it don’t stop being a Scania,” he grunted in a low voice, which was slightly less accusing, and then moved his shinbones a little farther from his daughter’s shoe.

  Sonja’s father had always driven Scania trucks. He couldn’t understand why anyone would have anything else. Then, after years of consumer loyalty, they merged with Saab. It was a treachery he never quite forgave them for.

  Ove, who, in turn, had become very interested in Scania when they merged with Saab, looked thoughtfully out of the window while chewing his potato.

  “Does it run well?” he asked.

  “No,” muttered the old man irascibly and went back to his plate. “None of their models run well. None of ’em are built right. Mechanics want half a fortune to fix anything on it,” he added, as if he were actually explaining it to someone sitting under the table.

  “I can have a look at it if you’ll let me,” said Ove and looked enthusiastic all of a sudden.

  It was the first time Sonja could ever remember him actually sounding enthusiastic about anything.

  The two men looked at each other for a moment. Then Sonja’s father nodded. And Ove nodded curtly back. And then they rose to their feet, objective and determined, in the way two men might behave if they had just agreed to go and kill a third man. A few minutes later Sonja’s father came back into the kitchen, leaning on his stick, and sank into his chair with his chronically dissatisfied mumbling. He sat there for a good while stuffing his pipe with care, then at last nodded at the saucepans and managed to say:


  “Thanks, Dad.” She smiled.

  “You cooked it. Not me,” he said.

  “The thanks was not for the food,” she answered and took away the plates, kissing her father tenderly on his forehead at the same time that she saw Ove diving in under the hood of the truck in the yard.

  Her father said nothing, just stood up with a quiet snort and took the newspaper from the kitchen counter. Halfway to his armchair in the living room he stopped himself, however, and stood there slightly unresolved, leaning on his stick.

  “Does he fish?” he finally grunted without looking at her.

  “I don’t think so,” Sonja answered.

  Her father nodded gruffly. Stood silent for a long while.

  “I see. He’ll have to learn, then,” he grumbled at long last, before putting his pipe in his mouth and disappearing into the living room.

  Sonja had never heard him give anyone a higher compliment.



  Is it dead?” Parvaneh asks in terror as she rushes forward as quickly as her pregnant belly will allow and stands there staring down into the hole.

  “I’m not a vet,” Ove replies—not in an unfriendly way. Just as a point of information.

  He doesn’t understand where this woman keeps appearing from all the time. Can’t a man calmly and quietly stand over a cat-shaped hole in a snowdrift in his own garden anymore?

  “You have to get him out!” she cries, hitting him on the shoulder with her glove.

  Ove looks displeased and pushes his hands deeper into his jacket pockets. He is still having a bit of trouble breathing.

  “Don’t have to at all,” he says.

  “Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”

  “I don’t get along with cats very well,” Ove informs her and plants his heels in the snow.

  But her gaze when she turns around makes him move a little farther away.

  “Maybe he’s sleeping,” he offers, peering into the hole. Before adding: “Otherwise he’ll come out when it thaws.”

  When the glove comes flying towards him again he confirms to himself that keeping a safe distance was a very sound idea.

  But the next thing he knows Parvaneh has dived into the snowdrift; she emerges seconds later with the little deep-frozen creature in her thin arms. It looks like four ice pops clumsily wrapped in a shredded scarf.

  “Open the door!” she yells, really losing her composure now.

  Ove presses the soles of his shoes into the snow. He had certainly not begun this day with the intention of letting either women or cats into his house, he’d like to make that very clear to her. But she comes right at him with the animal in her arms and determination in her steps. It’s really only a question of the speed of his reactions whether she walks through him or past him. Ove has never experienced a worse woman when it comes to listening to what decent people tell her. He feels out of breath again. He fights the impulse to clutch his breast.

  She keeps going. He gives way. She strides past.

  The small icicle-decorated package in her arms obstinately brings up a flow of memories in Ove’s head before he can put a stop to them: memories of Ernest, fat, stupid old Ernest, so beloved of Sonja that you could have bounced five-kronor coins on her heart whenever she saw him.

  “OPEN THE DOOR THEN!” Parvaneh roars and looks round at Ove so abruptly that there’s a danger of whiplash.

  Ove hauls out the keys from his pocket. As if someone else has taken control of his arm. He’s having a hard time accepting what he’s actually doing. One part of him in his head is yelling “NO” while the rest of his body is busy with some sort of teenage rebellion.

  “Get me some blankets!” Parvaneh orders and runs across the threshold with her shoes still on.

  Ove stands there for a few moments, catching his breath; he furtively scoops up the envelope with his final instructions from the mat before he ambles off after her.

  “It’s bloody freezing in here. Turn up the radiators!” Parvaneh tosses out the words as if this is something quite obvious, gesturing impatiently at Ove as she puts the cat down on his sofa.

  “There’ll be no turning up of radiators here,” Ove announces firmly. He parks himself in the living room doorway and wonders whether she might try to swat him again with the glove if he tells her at least to put some newspapers under the cat. When she turns to him again he decides to give it a miss. Ove doesn’t know if he’s ever seen such an angry woman.

  “I’ve got a blanket upstairs,” he says at long last, avoiding her gaze by suddenly feeling incredibly interested in the hall lamp.

  “Get it then!”

  Ove looks as if he’s repeating her words to himself, though silently, in an affected, disdainful voice; but he takes off his shoes and crosses the living room at a cautious distance from her glove-striking range.

  All the way up and down the stairs he mumbles to himself about why it has to be so damned difficult to get any peace and quiet on this street. Upstairs he stops and takes a few deep breaths. The pain in his chest has gone. His heart is beating normally again. It happens now and then, and he no longer gets stressed about it. It always passes. And he won’t be needing that heart for very much longer, so it doesn’t matter either way.

  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.

  “Hey, man!” he says cheerfully and waves at Ove.

  He’s only wearing a T-shirt, even though there’s snow outside.

  “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-break
fast operation.

  “I heard someone shouting, just wanted to check that everything was cool here,” says the young man jovially, shrugging his shoulders so that his back blubber folds the T-shirt into deep wrinkles.

  Parvaneh snatches the blanket out of the Ove’s hand and starts wrapping the cat in it.

  “You’ll never get him warm like that,” says the young man pleasantly.

  “Don’t interfere,” says Ove, who, while perhaps not an expert at defrosting cats, does not appreciate at all having people marching into his house and issuing orders about how things should be done.

  “Be quiet, Ove!” says Parvaneh and looks entreatingly at the young man. “What shall we do, then? He’s ice-cold!”

  “Don’t tell me to be quiet,” mumbles Ove.

  “He’ll die,” says Parvaneh.

  “Die my ass, he’s just a bit chilly—” Ove interjects, in a new attempt to regain control over the situation.

  The Pregnant One puts her index finger over his lips and hushes him. Ove looks so absurdly irritated at this it’s as if he’s going to break into some sort of rage-fueled pirouette.

  When Parvaneh holds up the cat, it has started shifting in color from purple to white. Ove looks a little less sure of himself when he notices this. He glances at Parvaneh. Then reluctantly steps back and gives way.

  The young, overweight man takes off his T-shirt.

  “But what the . . . this has got to be . . . what are you DOING?” stutters Ove.

  His eyes flicker from Parvaneh by the sofa, with the defrosting cat in her arms and water dripping onto the floor, to the young man standing there with his torso bare in the middle of Ove’s living room, the fat trembling over his chest down towards his knees, as if he were a big mound of ice cream that had first melted and then been refrozen.

  “Here, give him to me,” says the young man unconcernedly and reaches over with two arms thick as tree trunks towards Parvaneh.

  When she hands over the cat he encloses it in his enormous embrace, pressing it against his chest as if trying to make a gigantic cat spring roll.

  “By the way, my name’s Jimmy,” he says to Parvaneh and smiles.

  “I’m Parvaneh,” says Parvaneh.

  “Nice name,” says Jimmy.

  “Thanks! It means ‘butterfly.’” Parvaneh smiles.

  “Nice!” says Jimmy.

  “You’ll smother that cat,” says Ove.

  “Oh, give it a rest, will you, Ove,” says Jimmy.

  “I reckon it would rather freeze to death in a dignified manner than be strangled,” he says to Jimmy, nodding at the dripping ball of fluff pressed into his arms.

  Jimmy pulls his good-tempered face into a big grin.

  “Chill a bit, Ove. You can say what you like about us fatties, but we’re awesome when it comes to pumping out a bit of heat!”

  Parvaneh peers nervously over his blubbery upper arm and gently puts the palm of her hand against the cat’s nose. Then she brightens.

  “He’s getting warmer,” she exclaims, turning to Ove in triumph.

  Ove nods. He was about to say something sarcastic to her. Now he finds, uneasily, that he’s relieved at the news. He distracts himself from this emotion by assiduously inspecting the TV remote control.

  Not that he’s concerned about the cat. It’s just that Sonja would have been happy. Nothing more than that.

  “I’ll heat some water,” says Parvaneh, and in a single snappy movement she slips past Ove and is suddenly standing in his kitchen, tugging at his kitchen cabinets.

  “What the hell,” mumbles Ove as he lets go of the remote control and tears off in pursuit.

  When he gets there, she’s standing motionless and slightly confused in the middle of the floor with his electric kettle in her hand. She looks a bit overwhelmed, as if the realization of what’s happened has only just hit her.

  It’s the first time Ove has seen this woman run out of something to say. The kitchen has been cleared and tidied, but it’s dusty.

  It smells of brewed coffee, there’s dirt in the crannies, and everywhere are Ove’s wife’s things. Her little decorative objects in the window, her hair clips left on the kitchen table, her handwriting on the Post-it notes on the fridge.

  The kitchen is filled with those soft wheel marks. As if someone has been going back and forth with a bicycle, thousands of times.

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Comments 2

admin 5 July 2018 23:55
love that one
Aiman 28 July 2018 09:13
Such a beautiful piece of work. Makes my heart swell up two sizes, overwhelmed.
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