Charming and nonsensical: Jonas Jonasson’s new novel is just like his first
Difficult Second Novels are, as a rule, all the more difficult if they come hot on the heels of an international blockbusting debut. Capitalising on success only means something if you can match it, and the odds of replicating that first-time triumph, both critically and commercially, are decidedly slim. Kinder voices may charge you with peaking too soon. Scoffers will write you off as a one-hit wonder.
Of course, one way of repeating success is by repeating the formula, which is to some extent what Jonas Jonasson has done with his follow-up to the bestselling The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. His debut charted the antic exploits of Allan Karlsson, a man with an uncanny, Forrest Gump-like knack of having always been in the right place at the right time and privy to some of the 20th century’s most significant events.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden offers up more of the same ludicrous coincidences and picaresque mayhem but with a younger protagonist and wider perspective.
Jonasson kick-starts the proceedings in a Soweto shanty town rife with disease and despair. We meet his heroine, Nombeko, an illiterate 14-year-old latrine emptier who, through her resourcefulness and preternatural intelligence, learns how to read and write, fend for herself and rise up through the ranks. In time she flees the township armed with a stash of smuggled diamonds – only to end up the prisoner and cleaner of an inept and constantly sozzled engineer in a top-secret nuclear research facility. Nombeko uses her wits to escape, but not before she has mastered Mandarin, swotted up on nuclear physics, hoodwinked Mossad and redirected an atomic missile.
Readers embarking on this novel expecting a less far-fetched read will have given up long before this point. Meanwhile, Jonasson is only just getting started. He splices the high jinks of Nombeko’s strand with that of two Swedes, Ingmar and Henrietta Qvist. Ingmar’s colleagues call him by his initials: “I wish you good luck in whatever kind of idiocy you’re planning to get up to this time, IQ,” one tells him. The idiocy involves an abrupt volte-face: from worshipping the King of Sweden to waging a zealous campaign to dethrone him. When Ingmar’s one-man struggle proves too taxing he instructs his twin boys (both named Holger and officially only one person) to continue his life’s work.
Nombeko is forced to abandon her goal of the National Library of Pretoria and instead changes course for Sweden, suddenly a nuclear nation. On the run from South African justice and two angry spooks, Nombeko teams up with Holger One and Two and learns of their plot to overthrow the monarchy. What originated as a playful caper descends into an elaborate farce, one involving a colourful cast, catastrophically high stakes and one madcap scene after another.
Much, then, like Jonasson’s first novel. Once again, his fictional characters rub shoulders with famous figures, in particular world statesmen such as P W Botha, Hu Jintao and “that peanut farmer and Baptist” Jimmy Carter. Along with the illustrious are a vibrant bunch of fabulists, CIA agents and Chinese stowaways, a Vietnam War deserter and a potato-farming countess. There is fun to be had in watching Nombeko effortlessly hoovering up knowledge and outwitting her tyrannous white superiors. In fact, a measured effortlessness pervades the whole book. Perhaps Jonasson’s method of dealing with his Difficult Second Novel was simply to remain unfazed by the pressure.
Both Jonasson’s novels serve as ample proof that contemporary Swedish writers aren’t programmed only to churn out grisly crime fiction. Jonasson’s The Man Who…/The Girl Who… titles are quirkier versions of Stieg Larsson’s three, and the African and Swedish locations of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden mirror Henning Mankell’s two crime scenes – and yet on each occasion Jonasson seems to have purposefully set out to create the antidote to Nordic Noir. Granted, there are smatterings of creative deaths (one man is bitten in half by a hippo, another is crushed by a statue of Lenin) and a seam of seriousness lurks underneath all the frivolity (the iniquity of apartheid, nuclear brinkmanship) but otherwise Jonasson ploughs his own furrow in a world in which “everything had gone topsy-turvy”.
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden lacks the pathos of its predecessor – that centenarian can’t live forever – and some of its scrapes grow tiresome. However, there is enough rambunctious energy and inventiveness to keep happy those that lapped up Jonasson’s debut. Don’t question the warped logic or plot convolutions and simply enjoy it for what it is: charming, riotous, effervescent nonsense.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.
Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM