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A man called ove a novel, p.21
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.21

           Fredrik Backman
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  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.

  In the end, there is nothing left but a long series of weekdays with nothing more meaningful than oiling the kitchen counters. And Ove can’t cope with it anymore. He feels it in that moment more clearly than ever. He can’t fight anymore. Doesn’t want to fight anymore. Just wants it all to stop.

  Parvaneh keeps trying to argue with him, but he just closes the door. She hammers at it but he doesn’t listen. He sinks down on the stool in the hall and feels his hands trembling. His heart thumps so hard that it feels like his ears are about to explode. The pressure on his chest, as if an enormous darkness has put its boot over his throat, doesn’t begin to release till more than twenty minutes later.

  And then Ove starts to cry.



  Sonja said once that to understand men like Ove and Rune, one had to understand from the very beginning that they were men caught in the wrong time. Men who only required a few simple things from life, she said. A roof over their heads, a quiet street, the right make of car, and a woman to be faithful to. A job where you had a proper function. A house where things broke at regular intervals, so you always had something to tinker with.

  “All people want to live dignified lives; dignity just means something different to different people,” Sonja had said. To men like Ove and Rune dignity was simply that they’d had to manage on their own when they grew up, and therefore saw it as their right not to become reliant on others when they were adults. There was a sense of pride in having control. In being right. In knowing what road to take and how to screw in a screw, or not. Men like Ove and Rune were from a generation in which one was what one did, not what one talked about.

  She knew, of course, that Ove didn’t know how to bear his nameless anger. He needed labels to put on it. Ways of categorizing. So when men in white shirts at the council, whose names no normal person could keep track of, tried to do everything Sonja did not want—make her stop working, move her out of her house, imply that she was worth less than a healthy person who was able to walk, and assert that she was dying—Ove fought them. With documents and letters to newspapers and appeals, right down to something as unremarkable as an access ramp at a school. He fought so doggedly for her against men in white shirts that in the end he began to hold them personally responsible for all that happened to her—and to the child.

  And then she left him alone in a world where he no longer understood the language.

  Later that night, once Ove and the cat have had their dinner and watched the TV for a while, he turns out the lamp in the living room and goes upstairs. The cat follows watchfully at his heels, as if sensing that he’s going to do something it hasn’t been informed about. It sits on the bedroom floor while Ove gets undressed and looks as if it’s trying to figure out a magic trick.

  Ove goes to bed and lies still while the bloody cat, on Sonja’s side of the bed, takes more than an hour to go to sleep. Obviously, he does not go to such lengths because of some lingering sense of obligation to the cat; he just doesn’t have the energy for an argument. He can’t be expected to explain the concept of life and death to an animal that can’t even take care of its own fur.

  When the cat finally rolls onto its back on Sonja’s pillow and starts snoring with an open mouth, Ove sneaks out of bed as light-footedly as he can. Goes down into the living room, gets out the rifle from the hiding place behind the radiator. He gets out four heavy-duty tarpaulins he’s fetched in from the toolshed and hidden in the broom cupboard so the cat doesn’t notice them. Starts taping them up on the walls in the hall. Ove, after some consideration, has decided that this will probably be the best room for the deed, because it has the smallest surface area. He’s assuming that there’s a good deal of splattering when one shoots oneself in the head, and he’s loath to leave more of a mess behind than he has to. Sonja always hated it when he made a mess.

  He’s wearing his going-out shoes and suit again. It’s dirty and still smells of car exhaust, but it’ll have to do. He weighs the rifle in his hands, as if checking its center of gravity. As if this will play a decisive role in the future of the venture. He turns and twists it, tries to angle the barrel almost as if intending to fold the weapon double. Not that Ove knows very much about weapons, but one wants to know if it’s a decent piece of equipment one’s got, more or less. And because Ove supposes one can’t test the quality of a rifle by kicking it, he decides it can be done by bending and pulling at it, to see what happens.

  While he’s doing this, it strikes him that it was probably a fairly bad idea to put on his best gear. Will be an awful lot of blood on the suit, Ove imagines. Seems silly. So he puts down the rifle, goes into the living room, gets undressed, carefully folds up the suit, and puts it neatly beside his going-out shoes. Then he gets out the letter with all the instructions for Parvaneh and writes “Bury me in my suit” under the heading “Funeral Arrangements” and puts the letter on top of the pile of clothes. He has already stated clearly and unmistakably that there should not be any fuss in other respects. No exaggerated ceremony and rubbish like that. Shove him in the ground next to Sonja, that’s all. The spot has already been prepared and paid for, and Ove has put cash in the envelope for the hearse.

  So, wearing nothing but his socks and underwear, Ove goes back into the hall and picks up his rifle. He catches sight of his own body in the hall mirror. He hasn’t seen himself in this way for probably thirty-five years. He’s still quite muscular and robust. Certainly in better shape than most men of his age. But something’s happened to his skin that makes him look like he’s melting, he notes. It looks terrible.

  It’s very quiet in the house. In the whole neighborhood, actually. Everyone’s sleeping. And only then does Ove realize that the cat will probably wake at the sound of the shot. Will probably scare the living daylights out of the poor critter, Ove admits. He thinks about this for a good while before he determinedly sets down the rifle and goes into the kitchen to turn on the radio. Not that he needs music to take his own life, and not that he likes the idea of the radio clicking its way through units of electricity when he’s gone. But because if the cat wakes up from the bang, it may end up thinking that it’s just a part of one of those modern pop songs the radio plays all the time these days. And then go back to sleep. That is Ove’s train of thought.

  There’s no modern pop song on the radio, Ove hears, when he comes back into the hall and picks up the rifle again. It’s the local news bulletin. So he stays where he is for a moment and listens. Not that it’s so important to listen to the local news when you’re about to shoot yourself in the head, but Ove thinks there’s no harm in keeping yourself updated. They talk about the weather. And the economy. And the traffic. And the importance of local property owners staying vigilant over the weekend because of a large number of burglary rings on the rampage all over town. “Bloody hooligans,” Ove mutters, and grips the rifle a little more firmly when he hears that.

  From a purely objective point of view, the fact that Ove was wielding a gun was something two other hooligans, Adrian and Mirsad, would ideally have been aware of before they unconcernedly trotted up to Ove’s front door a few seconds later. They would then quite likely have understood that when Ove heard their creaking steps in the snow he would not immediately think to himself, Guests, how nice! but rather, Well, I’ll be damned! And they’d probably also know that Ove, wearing nothing but socks and underpants, with a three-quarter-century-old hunting rifle in his hands, would kick the door open like an aging, half-naked, suburban Rambo. And maybe then Adrian would not have screamed in a high-pitched voice tha
t went right through every window on the street, nor would he have turned in panic and run into the toolshed, almost knocking himself unconscious.

  It takes a few confused cries and a good deal of tumult before Mirsad has time to clarify his identity as that of a normal hooligan, not a burglar hooligan, and for Ove to come to grips with what is happening. Before then he has had time to wave his rifle at them, making Adrian scream like an air raid warning.

  “Shush! You’ll wake the bloody cat!” Ove hisses angrily while Adrian reels backwards, a swelling as large as a medium-size pack of ravioli on his forehead.

  “What in the name of God are you doing here?” he raves, the gun still firmly fixed on them. “It’s the middle of the bloody night!”

  Mirsad is holding a big bag in his hand, which he gently drops into the snow. Adrian impulsively holds his hands up as if he’s about to be robbed, and almost loses his balance and falls into the snow again.

  “It was Adrian’s idea,” Mirsad begins, looking down into the snow.

  “Mirsad came out today, you know!” Adrian blurts out.


  “He . . . came out, you know. Told everyone he was . . .” says Adrian, but he seems slightly distracted, partly by the fact that a fuming old man in his underpants is pointing a gun at him, and partly because he is increasingly convinced that he’s sustained some sort of concussion.

  Mirsad straightens up and nods at Ove with more determination.

  “I told my dad I’m gay.”

  Ove’s eyes grow slightly less threatening. But he doesn’t lower his rifle.

  “My dad hates gays. He always said he’d kill himself if he found out that any of his children were gay,” Mirsad goes on.

  After a moment’s silence he adds:

  “He didn’t take it so well. You might say.”

  “He throwed him out!” Adrian interjects.

  “Threw,” Ove corrects.

  Mirsad picks up his bag from the ground and nods anew at Ove.

  “This was a stupid idea. We shouldn’t have disturbed—”

  “Disturbed me with what?” Ove cuts him short.

  Now that he’s standing here in his underpants in below-freezing temperatures, he might as well at least find out the reason why, it seems to him.

  Mirsad takes a deep breath. As if he’s physically shoving his pride down his throat.

  “Dad said I was sick and not welcome under his roof with my . . . ‘unnatural ways,’” he says, swallowing hard before he manages to spit out the word “unnatural.”

  “Because you’re a bender?” Ove clarifies.

  Mirsad nods.

  “I don’t have any relatives here in town. I was going to stay the night at Adrian’s, but his mum’s new boyfriend is staying. . . .”

  He goes quiet. Looks like he’s feeling very silly.

  “It was an idiotic idea,” he says in a low voice and makes a move to turn around and leave.

  Adrian, on the other hand, seems to be rediscovering a desire for discussion, and he stumbles eagerly through the snow towards Ove.

  “What the hell, Ove! You’ve got a load of space in there! So we thought maybe he could crash here tonight?”

  “Here? This is not a damned hotel!” says Ove, raising the rifle so that Adrian’s chest collides right into the barrel.

  Adrian freezes. Mirsad takes two quick steps forward through the snow and puts his hand on the rifle.

  “We had nowhere else to go, sorry,” he says in a low voice while gently turning the barrel away from Adrian.

  Ove looks like he’s coming to his senses slightly. He lowers his weapon to the ground. When he almost imperceptibly takes a half step backwards into the hall, as if he’s only now become aware of the cold which envelops his not-so-well-dressed body, he notices, from the corner of his eye, the photo of Sonja on the wall. The red dress. The bus trip to Spain when she was pregnant. He asked her so many times to take that bloody photo down, but she refused. Said it was “a memory worth as much as any other.”

  Obstinate woman.

  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.



  Sometimes it is difficult to explain why some men suddenly do the things they do. Sometimes, of course, it’s because they know they’ll do them sooner or later anyway, and so they may as well just do them now. And sometimes it’s the pure opposite—because they realize they should have done them long ago. Ove has probably known all along what he has to do, but all people at root are time optimists. We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like “if.”

  As he marches down the stairs the next morning, he stops in the hallway. It hasn’t smelled like this in the house since Sonja died. Watchfully he takes the last few steps down, lands on the parquet floor, and stands in the doorway of the kitchen, his body language that of a man who has just caught a thief red-handed.

  “Is that you who’s been toasting bread?”

  Mirsad nods anxiously.

  “Yes . . . I hope that’s okay. Sorry. I mean, is it?”

  Ove notices that he’s made coffee too. The cat is on the floor eating tuna. Ove nods, but doesn’t answer the question.

  “Me and the cat have to go for a little walk around our road,” he clarifies instead.

  “Can I come?” asks Mirsad quickly.

  Ove looks at him a little as if Mirsad has stopped him in a pedestrian arcade, dressed up as a pirate, and asked him to guess under which of the three teacups he’s hidden the silver coin.

  “Maybe I can help?” Mirsad continues eagerly.

  Ove goes into the hall and shoves his feet into his clogs.

  “It’s a free country,” he mutters as he opens the door and lets out the cat.

  Mirsad interprets this as “Of course you can!” and quickly puts on his jacket and shoes and goes after Ove.

  “Hey, guys!” Jimmy hollers as they reach the pavement. He turns up, puffing energetically, behind Ove in a fiercely green tracksuit that’s so tight around his body that Ove wonders at first if it’s in fact a garment or a body painting.

  “Jimmy!” says Jimmy, panting, and offering Mirsad his hand.

  The cat looks as if it would like to rub itself lovingly against Jimmy’s legs, but seems to change its mind, bearing in mind that the last time it did something similar Jimmy ended up in the hospital. Instead it opts for the next best available thing and rolls about in the snow. Jimmy turns to Ove.

  “I usually see you walking around about this time, so I was gonna check with you if you’re cool with me tagging along. I’ve decided to start exercising, you know!”

  He nods with such satisfaction that the fat under his chin sways between his shoulders like a mainsail in stormy conditions. Ove looks highly dubious.

  “Do you usually get up at this time?”

  “Shit, no, man. I haven’t even gone to bed yet!” He laughs.

  And this is why a cat, an overweight allergy sufferer, a bent person, and a man called Ove make the inspection round that morning.

  Mirsad explains in brief that he and his father are not getting along and that he’s temporarily staying with Ove; Jimmy expresses disbelief that Ove is up at this time every single morning.

  “Why did you have a fight with the old man, then?” asks Jimmy.

  “That’s none of your business!” Ove barks.

  Mirsad gives Ove a grateful glance.

  “But seriously, man. You do this every morning?” Jimmy asks cheerfully.

  “Yes, to check if there have been any burglaries.”

  “For real? Are there a lot of burglaries around here?”

  “There are never lots of burgl
aries before the first burglary,” Ove mutters and heads off towards the guest parking.

  The cat looks at Jimmy as if unimpressed by his fitness drive. Jimmy pouts and touches his stomach, in the apparent belief that he has already lost some weight.

  “Did you hear about Rune, then?” he calls out, hastening his steps into a half jog behind Ove.

  Ove doesn’t answer.

  “Social Services is coming to pick him up, you know,” Jimmy explains once he’s caught up.

  Ove opens his pad and starts noting down the license plates of the cars. Jimmy evidently takes his silence as an invitation to keep talking.

  “You know, the long and short of it is Anita applied for more home help. Rune is just past it and she couldn’t deal with it anymore. So then the Social did some investigation and some guy called and said they’d decided she couldn’t handle it. And they were going to put Rune in one of those institutions, you know. And then Anita said they could forget about it, she didn’t even want home help anymore. But then that guy got really aggro and started getting totally uncool with her. Going on about how she couldn’t take the investigation back now and she was the one who had asked them to look into it. And now the investigation had made a decision and that was all there was to it, you know. Doesn’t matter what she says ’cos the Social guy is just running his own race, know what I mean?”

  Jimmy goes silent and nods at Mirsad, in the hope of getting some kind of reaction.

  “Uncool . . .” Mirsad declares hesitantly.

  “BLOODY uncool!” Jimmy nods until his upper body shakes.

  Ove puts his pen and pad in the inside pocket of his jacket and steers his steps towards the trash room.

  “Ah, it’ll take them forever to make those kinds of decisions. They say they’re taking him now, but they won’t pull their finger out for another year or two,” he snorts.

  Ove knows how that damned bureaucracy works.

  “But . . . the decision is made, man,” says Jimmy and scratches his hair.

  “Just sodding appeal it! It’ll take years!” says Ove grumpily as he strides past him.

  Jimmy looks at him as if trying to evaluate whether it’s worth the exertion of following him.

  “But she has done! She’s been writing letters and things for two years!”

  Ove doesn’t stop when he hears that. But he slows down. He hears Jimmy’s heavy steps bearing down on him in the snow.

  “Two years?” he asks without turning around.

  “More or less,” says Jimmy.

  Ove looks like he’s counting the months in his head.

  “That’s a lie. Then Sonja would have known about it,” he says dismissively.

  “I wasn’t allowed to say anything to Sonja. Anita didn’t want me to. You know . . .”

  Jimmy goes silent. Looks down at the snow. Ove turns around. Raises his eyebrows.

  “I know what?”

  Jimmy takes a deep breath.

  “She . . . thought you had enough troubles of your own,” he says in a low voice.

  The silence that follows is so thick you could split it with an ax. Jimmy does not look up. And Ove doesn’t say anything. He goes inside the trash room. Comes out. Goes into the bicycle shed. Comes out. The penny seems to have dropped. Jimmy’s last words hang like a veil over his movements and an unfathomable anger builds up inside Ove, picking up speed like a tornado inside his chest. He tugs at doors with increasing violence. Kicks the thresholds. And when Jimmy in the end mumbles something about, “Now it’s all screwed, man, now they’ll put Rune in a home, you know,” Ove slams a door so hard that the entire trash room shakes. He stands in silence with his back to them, panting more and more heavily.

  “Are you . . . okay?” asks Mirsad.

  Ove turns and points with anything but controlled fury at Jimmy.

  “Was that how she put it? She didn’t want to ask for Sonja’s help because we had ‘enough troubles of our own’?”

  Jimmy nods anxiously. Ove stares down at the snow, his chest heaving under his jacket. He thinks about how Sonja would have taken it if she’d found out. If she’d known that her best friend had not asked for her help because Sonja had “enough problems.” She would have been heartbroken.

  Sometimes it’s hard to explain why some men suddenly do the things they do.
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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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