A Man Called Ove
By Fredrik Backman; translated from Swedish by Henning Koch
It’s not often you find a book garnering the astronomical number of positive reviews as A Man Called Ove, especially a foreign language translation. You immediately want to know why, so you begin reading the novel. Several pages into it, you’re asking yourself, what am I missing here? Ove’s rude, the kind of man you don’t want as a neighbor for sure. The pace is kind of slow. But you push on, and as you do and become more intimate with his life, you see that Ove is truly likable, wonderfully giving, and, in the end, humanly endearing. Why then is this book so popular, the winner of so much reader praise? Because it reaffirms our belief that most people, even those who on the surface appear irredeemable, deep down, under the right circumstances, have heart and want to reach out and help others. Our job is being like Parvaneh, perceptive, patient, and encouraging.
The story takes place in Sweden in a townhouse community. Ove is 59. He once served as president of the residents’ board, but no longer. In his mind, his so-called friends ousted him in a coup d’état of sorts. At work, his bosses approached him about retiring early and now he really has no meaningful work. A man of uninterruptible habit that some might call obsession, Ove starts and ends his days the same each day, patrolling the community, raging in his mind about things out of order and disrespect, and engaging in short conversations with his wife, Sonja, whose grave he visits regularly. Then a pregnant Parvaneh, her husband Patrick (who is a stereotypical klutz around the house), and her children move into the community. At the same time, a mangy cat adopts Ove as his caretaker, taking up residence in the house and accompanying him pretty much everywhere. To say that Ove’s life changes dramatically is quite the understatement.
What you read above constitutes the opening of the novel, after which Backman, in short flashbacks, takes you through Ove’s life, from his time as a boy, his courtship of Sonja, his life at work, his relationships with people in his community, up to the present. (There’s much emotion here.) Knowing a person’s history helps us understand and appreciate that person, and so it is with Ove. We learn why Ove is as he is, and it isn’t just the untimely death of the person he loved dearly. In the end, when it’s time for us to bid Ove goodbye, we do so reluctantly and with not a little bit of sorrow.
If there’s something to pick at, it has to do with the publisher not including the fact that this is a translation on the cover and the title page. You learn this only by checking the copyright page. The translator is Henning Koch. He’s Swedish, a screenwriter, a novelist in his own right, and, of course, a translator. The translation reads simply with British flavoring, and captures the tone of Ove’s character and world perfectly. If you haven’t yet read it, do so, and you’ll understand why so many readers have taken Ove to heart. w/c