A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.3Fredrik Backman
from next door. She was holding her three-year-old by the hand. The big blond Lanky One was walking beside her. All three of them caught sight of Ove and waved cheerfully. Ove didn’t wave back. At first he was going to stop and give her a dressing-down about letting children run about in the parking area as if it were some municipal playground. But he decided he didn’t have the time.
He drove along, passing row after row of houses identical to his own. When they’d first moved in here there were only six houses; now there were hundreds of them. There used to be a forest here but now there were only houses. Everything paid for with loans, of course. That was how you did it nowadays. Shopping on credit and driving electric cars and hiring tradesmen to change a lightbulb. Laying click-on floors and fitting electric fireplaces and carrying on. A society that apparently could not see the difference between the correct anchor bolt for a concrete wall and a smack in the face. Clearly this was how it was meant to be.
It took him exactly fourteen minutes to drive to the florist’s in the shopping center. Ove kept exactly to every speed limit, even on that 35 mph road where the recently arrived idiots in suits came tanking along at 55. Among their own houses they put up speed bumps and damnable numbers of signs about “Children Playing,” but when driving past other people’s houses it was apparently less important. Ove had repeated this to his wife every time they drove past over the last ten years.
“And it’s getting worse and worse,” he liked to add, just in case by some miracle she hadn’t heard him the first time.
Today he’d barely gone a mile before a black Mercedes positioned itself a forearm’s length behind his Saab. Ove signaled with his brake lights three times. The Mercedes flashed its high beams at him in an agitated manner. Ove snorted at his rearview mirror. As if it was his duty to fling himself out of the way as soon as these morons decided speed restrictions didn’t apply to them. Honestly. Ove didn’t move. The Mercedes gave him a burst of its high beams again. Ove slowed down. The Mercedes sounded its horn. Ove lowered his speed to 15 mph. When they reached the top of a hill the Mercedes overtook him with a roar. The driver, a man in his forties in a tie and with white cables trailing from his ears, held up his finger through the window at Ove. Ove responded to the gesture in the manner of all men of a certain age who’ve been properly raised: by slowly tapping the tip of his finger against the side of his head. The man in the Mercedes shouted until his saliva spattered against the inside of his windshield, then put his foot down and disappeared.
Two minutes later Ove came to a red light. The Mercedes was at the back of the line. Ove flashed his lights at it. He saw the driver craning his neck around. The white earpieces dropped out and fell against the dashboard. Ove nodded with satisfaction.
The light turned green. The line didn’t move. Ove sounded his horn. Nothing happened. Ove shook his head. Must be a woman driver. Or roadwork. Or an Audi. When thirty seconds had passed without anything happening, Ove put the car into neutral, opened the door, and stepped out of the Saab with the engine still running. Stood in the road and peered ahead with his hands on his hips, filled with a kind of Herculean irritation: the way Superman might have stood if he’d got stuck in a traffic jam.
The man in the Mercedes gave a blast on his horn. Idiot, thought Ove. In the same moment the traffic started moving. The cars in front of Ove moved off. The car behind him, a Volkswagen, beeped at him. The driver waved impatiently at Ove. Ove glared back. He got back into the Saab and leisurely closed the door. “Amazing what a rush we’re in,” he scoffed into the rearview mirror and drove on.
At the next red light he ended up behind the Mercedes again. Another line. Ove checked his watch and took a left turn down a smaller, quiet road. This entailed a longer route to the shopping center, but there were fewer traffic lights. Not that Ove was mean. But as anyone who knows anything knows, cars use less fuel if they keep moving rather than stopping all the time. And, as Ove’s wife often says: “If there’s one thing you could write in Ove’s obituary, it’s ‘At least he was economical with gas.’”
As Ove approached the shopping center from his little side road, he could just make out that there were only two parking spaces left. What all these people were doing at the shopping center on a normal weekday was beyond his comprehension. Obviously people no longer had jobs to go to.
Ove’s wife usually starts sighing as soon as they even get close to a parking lot like this. Ove wants to park close to the entrance. “As if there’s a competition about who can find the best parking spot,” she always says as he completes circuit after circuit and swears at all the imbeciles getting in his way in their foreign cars. Sometimes they end up doing six or seven loops before they find a good spot, and if Ove in the end has to concede defeat and content himself with a slot twenty yards farther away, he’s in a bad mood for the rest of the day. His wife has never understood it. Then again, she never was very good at grasping questions of principle.
Ove figured he would go around slowly a couple of times just to check the lay of the land, but then suddenly caught sight of the Mercedes thundering along the main road towards the shopping center. So this was where he’d been heading, that suit with the plastic cables in his ears. Ove didn’t hesitate for a second. He put his foot down and barged his way out of the intersection into the road. The Mercedes slammed on its brakes, firmly pressing down on the horn and following close behind. The race was on.
The signs at the parking lot entrance led the traffic to the right, but when they got there the Mercedes must also have seen the two empty slots, because he tried to slip past Ove on the left. Ove only just managed to maneuver himself in front of him to block his path. The two men started hunting each other across the tarmac.
In his rearview mirror, Ove saw a little Toyota turn off the road behind them, follow the road signs, and enter the parking area in a wide loop from the right. Ove’s eyes followed it while he hurtled forward in the opposite direction, with the Mercedes on his tail. Of course, he could have taken one of the free slots, the one closest to the entrance, and then had the kindness of letting the Mercedes take the other. But what sort of victory would that have been?
Instead Ove made an emergency stop in front of the first slot and stayed where he was. The Mercedes started wildly sounding its horn. Ove didn’t flinch. The little Toyota approached from the far right. The Mercedes also caught sight of it and, too late, understood Ove’s devilish plan. Its horn wailed furiously as it tried to push past the Saab, but it never stood a chance: Ove had already waved the Toyota into one of the free slots. Only once it was safely in did Ove nonchalantly swing into the other space.
The side window of the Mercedes was so covered in saliva when it drove past that Ove couldn’t even see the driver. He stepped out of the Saab triumphantly, like a gladiator who had just slain his opponent. Then he looked at the Toyota.
“Oh, damn,” he mumbled, irritated.
The car door was thrown open.
“Hi there!” the Lanky One sang merrily as he untangled himself from the driver’s seat. “Hello hello!” said his wife from the other side of the Toyota, lifting out their three-year-old.
Ove watched repentantly as the Mercedes disappeared in the distance.
“Thanks for the parking space! Bloody marvelous!” The Lanky One was beaming.
Ove didn’t reply.
“Wass ya name?” the three-year-old burst out.
“Ove,” said Ove.
“My name’s Nasanin!” she said with delight.
Ove nodded at her.
“And I’m Pat—” the Lanky One started saying.
But Ove had already turned around and left.
“Thanks for the space,” the Pregnant Foreign Woman called after him.
Ove could hear laughter in her voice. He didn’t like it. He just muttered a quick “Fine, fine,” without turning and marched through the revolving doors into the shopping center. He turned left down the first corridor and looked around several times, as
Ove stopped suspiciously outside the supermarket and eyed the poster advertising the week’s special offers. Not that Ove was intending to buy any ham in this particular shop. But it was always worth keeping an eye on the prices. If there’s one thing in this world that Ove dislikes, it’s when someone tries to trick him. Ove’s wife sometimes jokes that the three worst words Ove knows in this life are “Batteries not included.” People usually laugh when she says that. But Ove does not usually laugh.
He moved on from the supermarket and stepped into the florist’s. And there it didn’t take long for a “rumble” to start up, as Ove’s wife would have described it. Or a “discussion,” as Ove always insisted on calling it. Ove put down a coupon on the counter on which it said: “2 plants for 50 kronor.” Given that Ove only wanted one plant, he explained to the shop assistant, with all rhyme and reason on his side, he should be able to buy it for 25 kronor. Because that was half of 50. However, the assistant, a brain-dead phone-texting nineteen-year-old, would not go along with it. She maintained that a single flower cost 39 kronor and “2 for 50” only applied if one bought two. The manager had to be summoned. It took Ove fifteen minutes to make him see sense and agree that Ove was right.
Or, to be honest about it, the manager mumbled something that sounded a little like “bloody old sod” into his hand and hammered 25 kronor so hard into the cash register that anyone would have thought it was the machine’s fault. It made no difference to Ove. He knew these retailers were always trying to screw you out of money, and no one screwed Ove and got away with it. Ove put his debit card on the counter. The manager allowed himself the slightest of smiles, then nodded dismissively and pointed at a sign that read: “Card purchases of less than 50 kronor carry a surcharge of 3 kronor.”
Now Ove is standing in front of his wife with two plants. Because it was a question of principle.
“There was no way I was going to pay three kronor,” rails Ove, his eyes looking down into the gravel.
Ove’s wife often quarrels with Ove because he’s always arguing about everything.
But Ove isn’t bloody arguing. He just thinks right is right. Is that such an unreasonable attitude to life?
He raises his eyes and looks at her.
“I suppose you’re annoyed I didn’t come yesterday like I promised,” he mumbles.
She doesn’t say anything.
“The whole street is turning into a madhouse,” he says defensively. “Complete chaos. You even have to go out and back up their trailers for them nowadays. And you can’t even put up a hook in peace,” he continues as if she’s disagreeing.
He clears his throat.
“Obviously I couldn’t put the hook up when it was dark outside. If you do that there’s no telling when the lights go off. More likely they’ll stay on and consume electricity. Out of the question.”
She doesn’t answer. He kicks the frozen ground. Sort of looking for words. Clears his throat briefly once again.
“Nothing works when you’re not at home.”
She doesn’t answer. Ove fingers the plants.
“I’m tired of it, just rattling around the house all day while you’re away.”
She doesn’t answer that either. He nods. Holds up the plants so she can see them.
“They’re pink. The ones you like. They said in the shop they’re perennials but that’s not what they’re bloody called. Apparently they die in this kind of cold, they also said that in the shop, but only so they could sell me a load of other shit.”
He looks as if he’s waiting for her approval.
“The new neighbors put saffron in their rice and things like that; they’re foreigners,” he says in a low voice.
A new silence.
He stands there, slowly twisting the wedding ring on his finger. As if looking for something else to say. He still finds it painfully difficult being the one to take charge of a conversation. That was always something she took care of. He usually just answered. This is a new situation for them both. Finally Ove squats, digs up the plant he brought last week, and carefully puts it in a plastic bag. He turns the frozen soil carefully before putting in the new plants.
“They’ve bumped up the electricity prices again,” he informs her as he gets to his feet.
He looks at her for a long time. Finally he puts his hand carefully on the big boulder and caresses it tenderly from side to side, as if touching her cheek.
“I miss you,” he whispers.
It’s been six months since she died. But Ove still inspects the whole house twice a day to feel the radiators and check that she hasn’t sneakily turned up the heating.
A MAN CALLED OVE
Ove knew very well that her friends couldn’t understand why she married him. He couldn’t really blame them.
People said he was bitter. Maybe they were right. He’d never reflected much on it. People also called him antisocial. Ove assumed this meant he wasn’t overly keen on people. And in this instance he could totally agree with them. More often than not people were out of their minds.
Ove wasn’t one to engage in small talk. He had come to realize that, these days at least, this was a serious character flaw. Now one had to be able to blabber on about anything with any old sod who happened to stray within an arm’s length of you purely because it was “nice.” Ove didn’t know how to do it. Perhaps it was the way he’d been raised. Maybe men of his generation had never been sufficiently prepared for a world where everyone spoke about doing things even though it no longer seemed worth doing them. Nowadays people stood outside their newly refurbished houses and boasted as if they’d built them with their own bare hands, even though they hadn’t so much as lifted a screwdriver. And they weren’t even trying to pretend that it was any other way. They boasted about it! Apparently there was no longer any value in being able to lay your own floorboards or refurbish a room with rising damp or change the winter tires. And if you could just go and buy everything, what was the value of it? What was the value of a man?
Her friends couldn’t see why she woke up every morning and voluntarily decided to share the whole day with him. He couldn’t either. He built her a bookshelf and she filled it with books by people who wrote page after page about their feelings. Ove understood things he could see and touch. Wood and concrete. Glass and steel. Tools. Things one could figure out. He understood right angles and clear instruction manuals. Assembly models and drawings. Things one could draw on paper.
He was a man of black and white.
And she was color. All the color he had.
The only thing he had ever loved until he saw her was numbers. He had no other particular memory of his youth. He was not bullied and he wasn’t a bully, not good at sports and not bad either. He was never at the heart of things and never on the outside. He was the sort of person who was just there. Nor did he remember so very much about his growing up; he had never been the sort of man who went around remembering things unless there was a need for it. He remembered that he was quite happy and that for a few years afterwards he wasn’t—that was about it.
And he remembered the sums. The numbers, filling his head. Remembered how he longed for their mathematics lessons at school. Maybe for the others they were a sufferance, but not for him. He didn’t know why, and didn’t speculate about it either. He’d never understood the need to go around stewing on why things turned out the way they did. You are what you are and you do what you do, and that was good enough for Ove.
He was seven years old when his mum called it a day one early August morning. She worked at a chemicals plant. In those days people didn’t know much about air safety, Ove realized later. She smoked as well, all the time. That’s Ove’s clearest memory of her, how she sat in the kitchen window of the little house where they lived outside town, with that billowing cloud around her, watching the sky every Saturday morning. And how sometimes she sang in
Ove’s father worked for the railways. The palms of his hands looked like someone had carved into leather with knives, and the wrinkles in his face were so deep that when he exerted himself the sweat was channeled through them down to his chest. His hair was thin and his body slender, but the muscles on his arms were so sharp that they seemed cut out of rock. Once when Ove was very young he was allowed to go with his parents to a big party with his dad’s friends from the rail company. After his father had put away a couple of bottles of pilsner, some of the other guests challenged him to an arm-wrestling competition. Ove had never seen the like of these giants straddling the bench opposite him. Some of them looked like they weighed about four hundred pounds. His father wore down every one of them. When they went home that night, he put his arm around Ove’s shoulders and said: “Ove, only a swine thinks size and strength are the same thing. Remember that.” And Ove never forgot it.
His father never raised his fists. Not to Ove or anyone else. Ove had classmates who came to school with black eyes or bruises from a belt buckle after a thrashing. But never Ove. “We don’t fight in this family,” his father used to state. “Not with each other or anyone else.”
He was well liked down at the railway, quiet but kind. There were some who said he was “too kind.” Ove remembers how as a child he could never understand how this could be something bad.
Then Mum died. And Dad grew even quieter. As if she took away with her the few words he’d possessed.
So Ove and his father never talked excessively, but they liked each other’s company. They sat in silence on either side of the kitchen table, and had ways of keeping busy. Every other day they put out food for a family of birds living in a rotting tree at the back of the house. It was important, Ove understood, that it had to be every other day. He didn’t know why, but that didn’t matter.
In the evenings they had sausages and potatoes. Then they played cards. They never had much, but they always had enough.
His father’s only remaining words were about engines (apparently his mother was content to leave these behind). He could spend any amount of time talking about them. “Engines give you what you deserve,” he used to explain. “If you treat them with respect they’ll give you freedom; if you behave like an ass they’ll take it from you.”
For a long time he did not own a car of his own, but in the 1940s and ’50s, when the bosses and directors at the railway started buying their own vehicles, a rumor soon spread in the office that the quiet man working on the track was a person well worth knowing. Ove’s father had never finished school, and didn’t understand much about the sums in Ove’s schoolbooks. But he understood engines.
When the daughter of the director was getting married and the wedding car broke down rather than ceremoniously transporting the bride to the church, Ove’s father was sent for. He came cycling with a toolbox on his shoulder so heavy that it took two men to lift it when he got off the bicycle. Whatever the problem was when he arrived, it was no longer a problem when he cycled back. The director’s wife invited him to the wedding reception, but he told her that it was probably not the done thing to sit with elegant people when one was the sort of man whose forearms were so stained with oil that it seemed a natural part of his pigmentation. But he’d gladly accept a bag of bread and meat for the lad at home, he said. Ove had just turned eight. When his father laid out the supper that evening, Ove felt like he was at a royal banquet.
A few months later the director sent for Ove’s father again. In the parking area outside the office stood an extremely old and worse-for-wear Saab 92. It was the first motorcar Saab had ever manufactured, although it had not been in production since the significantly upgraded Saab 93 had come onto the market. Ove’s dad recognized it very well. Front-wheel-driven and a side-mounted engine that sounded like a coffee percolator. It had been in an accident, the director explained, sticking his thumbs into his suspenders under his jacket. The bottle-green body was badly dented and the condition of what lay under the hood was certainly not pretty. But Ove’s father produced a little screwdriver from the pocket of his dirty overalls and after lengthily inspecting the car, he gave the verdict that with a bit of time and care and the proper tools he’d be able to put it back into working order.
“Whose is it?” he wondered aloud as he straightened up and wiped the oil from his fingers with a rag.
“It belonged to a relative of mine,” said the director, digging out a key from his suit trousers and pressing it into his palm. “And now it’s yours.”
With a pat on his shoulder, the director returned to the office. Ove’s father stayed where he was in the courtyard, trying to catch his breath. That evening he had to explain everything over and over again to his goggle-eyed son and show all there was to know about this magical monster now parked in their garden. He sat in the driver’s seat half the night, with the boy on his lap, explaining how all the mechanical parts were connected. He could account for every screw, every little tube. Ove had never seen a man as proud as his father was that night. He was eight years old and decided that night he would never drive any car but a Saab.
Whenever he had a Saturday off, Ove’s father brought him out into the yard, opened the hood, and taught him all the names of the various parts and what they did. On Sundays they went to church. Not because either of them had any excessive zeal for God, but because Ove’s mum had always been insistent about it. They sat at the back, each of them staring at a patch on the floor until it was over. And, in all honesty, they spent more time missing Ove’s mum than thinking about God. It was her time, so to speak, even though she was no longer there. Afterwards they’d take a long drive in the countryside with the Saab. It was Ove’s favorite part of the week.
That year, to stop him rattling around the house on his own, he also started going with his father to work at the railway yard after school. It was filthy work and badly paid, but, as his father used to mutter, “It’s an honest job and that’s worth something.”
Ove liked all the men at the railway yard except Tom. Tom was a tall, noisy man with fists as big as flatbed carts and eyes that always seemed to be looking for some defenseless animal to kick around.
When Ove was nine years old, his dad sent him to help Tom clean out a broken-down railway car. With sudden jubilation, Tom snatched up a briefcase left by some harassed passenger. It had fallen from the luggage rack and distributed its contents over the floor. Before long Tom was darting about on all fours, scrabbling together everything he could see.
“Finders keepers,” he spat at Ove. Something in his eyes made Ove feel as if there were insects crawling under his skin.
As Ove turned to go, he stumbled over a wallet. It was made of such soft leather that it felt like cotton against his rough fingertips. And it didn’t have a rubber band around it like Dad’s old wallet, to keep it from falling to bits. It had a little silver button that made a click when you opened it. There was more than six thousand kronor inside. A fortune to anyone in those days.
Tom caught sight of it and tried to tear it out of Ove’s hands. Overwhelmed by an instinctive defiance, the boy resisted. He saw how shocked Tom was at this, and out of the corner of his eye he had time to see the huge man clenching his fist. Ove knew he’d never be able to get away, so he closed his eyes, held on to the wallet as hard as he could, and waited for the blow.
A Man Called Ove: A Novel by Fredrik Backman / History & Fiction / Humor have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on95 votes