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A man called ove a novel, p.18
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.18

           Fredrik Backman
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  one more Saab 9000 and Rune eventually went over to a Volvo 760, after which Ove got himself a Saab 9000i and Rune part-exchanged to a Volvo 760 Turbo.

  And then the day came when Ove went to the car dealer to look at the recently launched Saab 9-3, and when he came home in the evening, Rune had bought a BMW.

  “A BMW!” Ove had roared at Sonja. “How can you reason with a human being like that? How?”

  And possibly it was not the entire explanation for why these two men loathed one another, Sonja used to explain. Either you understood it or you didn’t. And if you didn’t understand, there was no point even trying to clarify the rest.

  Most people never did understand, Ove often commented. But then people had no idea of loyalty these days. The car was just “a means of transport” and the road just a complication arising between two points. Ove is convinced this is why the roads are as bad as they are. If people were a little more careful with their cars they wouldn’t drive like idiots, he thinks, watching with concern as Parvaneh pushes away the newspaper he has spread across her seat. She has to retract the driver’s seat as far as it’ll go, so she can maneuver her pregnant belly into the car, then bring it forward all the way so she can reach the wheel.

  The driving lesson doesn’t start so well. Or, to be precise, it begins with Parvaneh trying to get into the Saab with a bottle of carbonated juice in her hand. She shouldn’t have done that. Then she tries to fiddle with Ove’s radio to find “a more entertaining station.” She shouldn’t have done that either.

  Ove picks up the newspaper from the floor, rolls it up, and starts nervously striking it against his hand, like a more aggressive version of a stress ball. She grabs the wheel and looks at the instruments like a curious child.

  “Where do we start?” she yells eagerly, after at long last agreeing to hand over the juice.

  Ove sighs. The cat sits in the backseat and looks as if it wished, with intensity, that cats knew how to strap on safety belts.

  “Press the clutch pedal,” says Ove, slightly grim.

  Parvaneh looks around her seat as if searching for something. Then she looks at Ove and smiles ingratiatingly.

  “Which one’s the clutch?”

  Ove’s face fills with disbelief.

  She looks around the seat again, turns toward the seat belt fixture in the back rest, as if she may find the clutch there. Ove holds his forehead. Parvaneh’s facial expression immediately sours.

  “I told you I want a driver’s license for an automatic! Why did you make me use your car?”

  “Because you’re getting a proper license!” Ove cuts her short, emphasizing “proper” in a way that makes it plain that a license for an automatic is as much a “proper driver’s license” as a car with an automatic gearbox is a “proper car.”

  “Stop shouting at me!” shouts Parvaneh.

  “I’m not shouting!” Ove shouts back.

  The cat curls up in the backseat, clearly anxious not to end up in the middle of this, whatever it is. Parvaneh crosses her arms and glares out of the side window. Ove strikes his paper baton rhythmically into the palm of his hand.

  “The pedal on the far left is the clutch,” he grunts in the end.

  After taking a breath so deep that he has to stop halfway for a rest before he inhales again, he continues:

  “The one in the middle is the brake. On the far right is the accelerator. You release the clutch slowly until you find the point where it engages, then give it a bit of gas, release the clutch, and move off.”

  Parvaneh seems to accept this as an apology. She nods and calms down. Takes hold of the steering wheel, starts the car, and follows his instructions. The Saab lurches forward with a little jump, then pauses before catapulting itself with a loud roar towards the guest parking and very nearly crashing into another car. Ove tugs at the hand brake. Parvaneh lets go of the steering wheel and yells in panic, covering her eyes with her hands until the Saab finally comes to an abrupt stop. Ove is puffing as if he’d had to make his way to the hand brake by forcing himself through a military obstacle course. His facial muscles twitch like a man whose eyes are being sprayed with lemon juice.

  “What do I do now?!” roars Parvaneh when she realizes that the Saab is an inch from the taillights of the car in front.

  “Reverse. You put it in reverse,” Ove manages to say through his teeth.

  “I almost smashed into that car!” pants Parvaneh.

  Ove peers over the edge of the hood. And then, suddenly, a sort of calm comes over his face. He turns and nods at her, very matter-of-fact.

  “Doesn’t matter. It’s a Volvo.”

  It takes them fifteen minutes to get out of the parking area and onto the main road. Once they’re there, Parvaneh revs the first gear until the Saab vibrates like it’s about to explode. Ove tells her to change gear and she replies that she doesn’t know how. Meanwhile the cat seems to be trying to open the back door.

  When they get to the first red light, a big black SUV with two shaven-headed young men in the front pulls up so close to their rear bumper that Ove is pretty sure he’ll have their license number etched into his paintwork when they get home. Parvaneh glances nervously in the mirror. The SUV revs its engine, as if giving vent to some sort of opinion. Ove turns and looks out the back window. The two men have tattoos all over their throats, he notes. As if the SUV is not a clear enough advertisement for their stupidity.

  The light turns green. Parvaneh brings up the clutch, the Saab splutters, and the instrument panel goes black. Stressed, Parvaneh turns the key in the ignition, which only makes it grind in a heartrending manner. The engine makes a roar, coughs, and dies anew. The men with the shaved heads and tattooed throats sound the horn. One of them gestures.

  “Press down the clutch and give it more gas,” says Ove.

  “That’s what I’m doing!” she answers.

  “That’s not what you’re doing.”

  “Yes I am!”

  “Now you’re shouting.”

  “I’M NOT BLOODY SHOUTING!” she shouts.

  The SUV blares its horn. Parvaneh presses down the clutch. The Saab rolls backwards a few inches and bumps into the front of the SUV. The Throat Tattoos are now hanging on the horn as if it’s an air raid alarm.

  Parvaneh tugs despairingly at the key, only to be rewarded by yet another stall. Then suddenly she lets go of everything and hides her face in her hands.

  “Good Go— are you crying now?” Ove asks in amazement.

  “I’M NOT BLOODY CRYING!” she howls, her tears spattering over the dashboard.

  Ove leans back and looks down at his knee. Fingers the end of the paper baton.

  “It’s just such a strain, this, do you understand?” she sobs and leans her forehead against the wheel as if hoping it might be soft and fluffy. “I’m sort of PREGNANT! I’m just a bit STRESSED, can no one show a bit of understanding for a pregnant bloody woman who’s a bit STRESSED?!”

  Ove twists uncomfortably in the passenger seat. She punches the steering wheel several times, mumbles something about how all she wants is to “drink some bloody lemonade,” flops her arms over the top of the steering wheel, buries her face in her sleeves, and starts crying again.

  The SUV behind them honks until it sounds as if the Finland ferry is about to run them down. And then something in Ove snaps. He throws the door open, gets out of the car, walks slowly around the SUV, and rips the driver’s door open.

  “Have you never been a student driver or what?”

  The driver doesn’t have time to answer.

  “You stupid little bastard!” Ove roars in the face of the shaven-headed young man with throat tattoos, his spittle cascading over their seats.

  The Throat Tattoo doesn’t have time to answer and Ove doesn’t wait for him either. Instead he grabs the young man by his collar and pulls him up so hard that his body tumbles clumsily out of the car. He’s a muscular sort, easily weighing in at two hundred pounds, but Ove holds his collar in an immova
ble steel grip. Evidently, Throat Tattoo is so surprised by the strength in the old man’s grip that it doesn’t occur to him to put up any resistance. Fury burns in Ove’s eyes as he presses the probably thirty-five-years-younger man so hard against the side of the SUV that the bodywork creaks. He places the tip of his index finger in the middle of the shaved head and positions his eyes so close to Throat Tattoo’s face that they feel each other’s breath.

  “If you sound that horn one more time, it’ll be the LAST thing you do on this earth. Got it?”

  Throat Tattoo allows his eyes to divert quickly towards his equally muscular friend inside the car, and then at the growing line of other cars behind the SUV. No one is making the slightest move to come to his assistance. No one beeps. No one moves. 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 most worried about annoying.

  Ove’s eyes are black with anger. After a short moment of reflection, Throat Tattoo seems convinced by the argument that the old man unmistakably means business. The tip of his nose, almost unnoticeably, moves up and down.

  Ove nods by way of confirmation and lets him back down on the ground. Then turns around, walks around the SUV, and gets back into the Saab. Parvaneh stares at him, with her mouth hanging open.

  “Now, you listen to me,” says Ove calmly while he carefully closes 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 her 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.”

  And then he utters seven words, which Parvaneh will always remember as the loveliest compliment he’ll ever give her.

  “Because you are not a complete twit.”

  Parvaneh pushes a ringlet of hair out of her face, sticky with tears. Clumsily she once again grabs hold of the steering wheel with both hands. Ove nods, puts on his safety belt, and makes himself comfortable.

  “Now, push the clutch down and do what I say.”

  And that afternoon Parvaneh learns to drive.



  Sonja used to say that Ove was “unforgiving.” For instance, he refused to go back to the local bakery eight years after they gave him the wrong change when he bought pastries once at the end of the 1990s. Ove called it “having firm principles.” They were never quite in agreement when it came to words and their meanings.

  He knows that she is disappointed that he and Rune could not keep the peace. He knows that the animosity between him and Rune to some extent ruined the possibility of Sonja and Anita becoming the great friends they could have been. But when a conflict has been going on for long enough it can be impossible to sort out, for the simple reason that no one can remember how it first started. And Ove didn’t know how it first started.

  He only knew how it ended.

  A BMW. There must have been some people who understood it and some who didn’t. There were probably people who thought there was no connection between cars and emotions. But there would never be a clearer explanation as to why these two men had become enemies for life.

  Of course, it had started innocently enough, not long after Ove and Sonja came back from Spain and the accident. Ove laid new paving stones in their little garden that summer, whereupon Rune put up a new fence around his. Whereupon Ove put up an even higher fence around his garden, whereupon Rune went off to the building supply store and a few days later started boasting all over the street that he had “built a swimming pool.” That was no bloody swimming pool, Ove raged to Sonja. It was a little splash pool for Rune and Anita’s newborn urchin, that was all it was. For a while Ove had plans to report it to the Planning Department as an illegal construction, but at that point Sonja put her foot down and sent him out to “mow the lawn” and calm himself down. And so Ove did just that, although it certainly did not calm him down very much at all.

  The lawn was oblong, about five yards wide, and ran along the backs of Ove’s and Rune’s houses and the house in between, which Sonja and Anita had quickly named “the neutral zone.” No one quite knew what that lawn was for or what function it was expected to fill, but when row housing was put up in those days, some city architect must have got the idea that there had to be lawns here and there, for no other reason than that they looked so very nice in the drawings. When Ove and Rune formed the Residents’ Association and were still friends, the two men decided that Ove should be the “grounds man” and responsible for keeping the grass mowed. It had always been Ove before. On one occasion the other neighbors had proposed that the association should put out tables and benches on the lawn to create a sort of “common space for all the neighbors,” but obviously Ove and Rune put a stop to that at once. It would only turn into a bloody mess and lots of noise.

  And as far as that went, it was all peace and joy. At least insofar as anything could be “peace and joy” when men like Ove and Rune were involved.

  Soon after Rune had built his “pool,” a rat ran across Ove’s newly mown lawn and into the trees on the other side. Ove immediately called a “crisis meeting” of the association and demanded that all local residents put out rat poison around their houses. The neighbors protested, of course, because they had seen hedgehogs by the edge of the woods and were concerned that they might eat the poison. Rune also protested, because he was afraid that some of it would end up in his pool. Ove suggested to Rune that he button up his shirt and go see a psychologist about his delusions of living on the French Riviera. Rune made a malicious joke at Ove’s expense, to the effect that Ove had probably only imagined seeing that rat. All the others laughed. Ove never forgave Rune for that. The next morning someone had thrown birdseed all over Rune’s outside space, and Rune had to use a spade to chase away a dozen rats as big as vacuum cleaners in the next few weeks. After that Ove got permission to put out poison, even though Rune mumbled that he’d pay him back for this.

  Two years later Rune won the Great Tree Conflict, when he gained permission at the annual meeting to saw down a tree blocking his and Anita’s evening sun on one side. The same tree on the other side screened off Ove and Sonja’s bedroom from blinding morning sunlight. Further, he managed to block Ove’s furious motion that the association would then have to pay for Ove’s new awning.

  However, Ove got his revenge during the Snow Clearance Skirmish of the following winter, in which Rune wanted to anoint himself “Chief of Snow Shoveling” and at the same time lumber the Residents’ Association with the purchase of a gigantic snowblower. Ove had no intention of letting Rune walk around with some bloody contraption at the expense of the association and spray snow over Ove’s windows, which he made crystal clear at the steering group meeting.

  Rune was still chosen to be responsible for snow clearance, but to his great annoyance he had to spend all winter shoveling the snow by hand between the houses. The outcome of this, of course, was that he consistently shoveled outside all the houses in their row except Ove and Sonja’s. Just to annoy Rune, in mid-January Ove hired a gigantic snowblower to clear the ten square yards outside his door. Rune was incandescent about it, Ove remembers with delight to this day.

  Of course, Rune found a way of paying him back the following summer, by buying one of those monstrous lawn tractor
s. Then, by a combination of treachery, lies, and conspiracies, he managed to get approval at the annual meeting to take over Ove’s lawn-mowing responsibilities on the grounds that he had “slightly more adequate equipment than the one who was in charge of it before.”

  As a partial restitution, Ove managed some four years later to stop Rune’s plans of putting in new windows in his house, because after thirty-three letters and a dozen angry telephone calls the Planning Department gave up and accepted Ove’s argument that this would “ruin the harmonious architectural character of the area.”

  In the following three years, Rune refused to speak of Ove as anything but “that bloody red-tapist.” Ove took it as a compliment. And the next year he changed his own windows.

  When the next winter set in, the steering group decided that the area needed a new collective heating system. Quite coincidentally, of course, Rune and Ove happened to have diametrically different views on what sort of heating system was required, which was jokingly referred to by the other neighbors as “the battle of the water pump.” It grew into an eternal struggle between the two men.

  And so it continued.

  But, as Sonja used to say, there were also some other moments. There weren’t many of them, but women like Sonja and Anita knew how to make the most of them. Because there hadn’t always been burning conflict. One summer in the 1980s, for instance, Ove had bought a Saab 9000 and Rune a Volvo 760. And they were so pleased with this that they kept the peace for several weeks. Sonja and Anita even managed to get all four of them together for dinner on a few occasions. Rune and Anita’s son, who’d had time to turn into a teenager by this stage, with all the divinely sanctioned charmlessness and impoliteness this entailed, sat at one end of the table like an irritable accessory. “That boy was born angry,” Sonja used to say with sadness in her voice, but Ove and Rune managed to get along so well that they even had a little whiskey together at the end of the evening.

  Unfortunately, at their last dinner that summer Ove and Rune had the idea of having a barbecue. And obviously they started feuding at once about the most effective way of lighting Ove’s globe grill. Within fifteen minutes the argument had escalated so much in volume that Sonja and Anita agreed it might be best to eat their dinner separately after all. The two men had time to buy and sell a Volvo 760 (Turbo) and a Saab 9000i before they spoke to one another again.

  Meanwhile, the neighbors came and went in the row of houses. In the end there had been so many new faces in the doorways of the other row houses that they all merged in a sea of gray. Where before there had been forest, there were only construction cranes. Ove and Rune stood outside their houses, hands obstinately shoved into their trouser pockets, like ancient relics in a new age, while a parade of uppity real estate agents barely able to see over their grapefruit-size tie knots patrolled the little road between the houses and kept their eyes on them—like vultures watching aging water buffaloes. They could hardly wait to move some bloody consultants’ families into their houses, both Ove and Rune knew that very well.

  Rune and Anita’s son moved away from home when he was twenty, in the early 1990s. Apparently he went to America, Ove found out from Sonja. They hardly saw him again. From time to time Anita had a telephone call around the time of Christmas, but “he was so busy with his own things now,” as Anita said when she tried to keep her spirits up, even though Sonja could see that she had to hold back her tears. Some boys leave everything behind and never look back. That was all there was to it.

  Rune never said anything about it. But to anyone who had known him a long time, it was as if he shrank a couple of inches in the years that followed. As if he sort of crumpled with a deep sigh and never really breathed properly again.

  A few years later Rune and Ove fell out for the hundredth time about that collective heating system. Ove stormed out of a Residents’ Association meeting, in a fury, and never returned. The last battle the two men fought was a bit into the noughties when Rune bought one of those automated robotic lawn mowers, which he’d ordered from Asia, and left it to whiz about on the lawn behind the houses. Rune could even remotely program it to cut “special patterns,” Sonja said in an impressed tone of voice one evening when she came home from visiting Anita. Ove soon caught on that this “special pattern” was the habit of that robotic little shit to consistently rumble back and forth all night outside Ove and Sonja’s bedroom window. One evening Sonja saw Ove fetch a screwdriver and walk out the veranda door. Next morning the little robot, quite inexplicably, had driven right into Rune’s pool.

  The month after, Rune went into the hospital for the first time. He never bought another lawn mower. Ove did not know himself how their animosity had begun, though he knew very well that it ended there and then. Afterwards it was only memories for Ove, and a lack of them for Rune.

  And there were very likely people who thought one could not interpret men’s feelings by the cars they drove.

  But when they moved onto the street, Ove drove a Saab 96 and Rune a Volvo 244. After the accident Ove bought a Saab 95 so he’d have space for Sonja’s wheelchair. That same year Rune bought a Volvo 245 to have space for a stroller. Three years later Sonja got a more modern wheelchair and Ove bought a hatchback, a Saab 900. Rune bought a Volvo 265 because Anita had started talking about having another child.

  Then Ove bought two more Saab 900s and after that his first Saab 9000. Rune bought a Volvo 265 and eventually a Volvo 745 station wagon. But no more children came. One evening Sonja came home and told Ove that Anita had been to the doctor.

  And a week later a Volvo 740 stood parked in Rune’s garage. The sedan model.

  Ove saw it when he washed his Saab. In the evening Rune found a half bottle of whiskey outside his door. They never spoke about it.

  Maybe their sorrow over children that never came should have brought the two men closer. But sorrow is unreliable in that way. When people don’t share it there’s a good chance that it will drive them apart instead.

  Maybe Ove never forgave Rune for having a son who he could not even get along with. Maybe Rune never forgave Ove for not being able to forgive him for it. Maybe neither of them forgave themselves for not being able to give the women they loved more than anything what they wanted more than anything. Rune and Anita’s lad grew up and cleared out of home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. “And one can’t drive a Volvo all of one’s life,” he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever. And for that maybe neither Ove nor Rune forgave him.

  So there were certainly people who thought that feelings could not be judged by looking at cars. But they were wrong.


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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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