Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

Author:
• Saturday, September 29th, 2018

Jonas Jonasson was born in 1961 and raised in the city of Växjö in southern Sweden. He studied Swedish and Spanish at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. After completing his studies, he worked as a journalist for numerous newspapers and later founded a media company, which he sold in 2003 for health reasons and then dedicated his time to writing.

To date, Jonasson has written three books. He has received several awards and his work has been translated into several languages. The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden, his second novel, was published in Swedish in 2013 and English in 2014. A feature film of the book is in the making by Icelandic producer, Joni Sighvatsson.

Since his divorce in 2010 Jonasson has been living with his son on Gotland island, a large Swedish island province in the Baltic Sea.

The story of The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden starts in South Africa during the apartheid era in nineteen sixty-one when the leading character, Nombeko Mayeki, is born in the Soweto slums, Africa’s largest shanty town, twenty kilometres away from Johannesburg. She is an illiterate, black South African girl, who is now fourteen-years-old but looks like twelve and who can add and subtract.

Nombeko has been a hard-working child since the tender age of five when she carried latrine barrels to earn a small amount of money to pay for her mother’s paint thinner addiction. The little girl becomes an orphan at the age of ten.

Nombeko’s father has been absent since impregnating her mother. Through unpredicted circumstances, Nombeko gets appointed as a manager’s assistant of latrine emptying by the twenty-three-year-old white, condescending new assistant, Piet du Toit. He is a university graduate, who comes to work with the bodyguard employed by his art-dealer father.

From this point on, the reader follows Nombeko through all her trials and tribulations. How she meets the smug Thabo, who teaches her to read. How she gets run over by Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen, a drunken engineer, while walking on the pavement in Johannesburg, yet survives. Nevertheless, the South African apartheid court, unfairly sentences her to work seven years for free as a cleaner for the faulty, drunken, fraudulent white engineer, Westhuizen. Engelbrecht Westhuizen, who happens to be in charge of the South African nuclear weapons facility, then regarded as the world’s most secret project.

The first chapter of the novel introduces the reader to young Nombeko’s miserable life in Soweto in South Africa. In the second chapter we are transported six thousand miles away to Sweden and introduced to Ingmar Qvist from Södertälje, his wife, Henrietta and in later chapters to his twin boys, Holger One and Holger Two.

The author alternates the unlinked chapters between South Africa and Sweden until Nombeko emigrates to Sweden and fortuitously finds herself sharing the life of the twin brothers, Holger One and Holger Two.

The twin brothers were raised by their father to eliminate the Swedish monarchy. Nombeko will also get acquainted with Holger One’s young, angry anarchist girlfriend, Celestine. That is when the two separate stories – in South Africa and Sweden – become one to be continued in Sweden.

Through her work behind the scenes as a chief advisor to the incompetent, drunken engineer, van der Westhuizen in Johannesburg, Nombeko gets involved with two agents of the Israeli “Mossad”, an Israeli intelligence agency. The two Mossad agents murder van der Westhuizen and endeavour, with the help of Nombeko, to steal the seventh atomic bomb that was never supposed to have existed and which was kept covertly hidden in a back office room.

The bright young girl circumvents the two Mossad agents and flees to Sweden, smuggling a stash of diamonds worth millions retrieved from Thabo’s shack after his untimely murder by two East African women thieves. It is thanks to Thabo’s tuition that Nombeko learned how to read and write.

In Sweden, Nombeko’s fate will change; but her nightmare continues because she is now unintentionally and therefore secretly in charge of an unaccounted-for seventh South African atomic bomb. This atomic bomb was shipped from South Africa by mistake to Sweden instead of to Israel.

Nombeko and her Swedish companion, Holger Two, struggle stealthily to dispose of this unwelcome burden. Through several difficult obstacles and with the help of the Chinese president, Nombeko and Holger Two send the atomic bomb to China and through different twists, save the life of the kidnapped king of Sweden and his prime minister.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is a novel with a long title that gives away the dénouement of the story. It is a humorous, farcical, captivating, thrilling adventure, original in its imaginative events.

The author cleverly intertwines fiction with reality by using some specific political fact-based occurrences and names of politicians and monarchs, both of the time and earlier. For example, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, the prime minister of Sweden Fredrik Reinfeldt, the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, the American president, Jimmy Carter and the late king Gustav III (1771- 1792), Gustav IV Adolf (1792-1809) and Gustaf V (1907-1950).

The author touches on many subjects such as the apartheid, ambition and hope, colonialism, racism, communism, the tension during the cold war involving the arms race of some countries to gain supremacy by obtaining nuclear weapons. The author addresses all these themes in the novel in a masterful way despite the coincidental, chaotic happenings.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden is an enjoyably entertaining book about an exceptional woman, whose life had been marked by close defeats and valiant rewarded efforts.

Author:
• Friday, June 15th, 2018

Hiromi Kawakami was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1958. She is a 1980 graduate of Biology from Ochanomizu Women’s University in Tokyo, where her degree thesis was on “reproduction in sea urchins”. In 1982, Kawakami worked for four years as a biology teacher at Denenchoolori High School. She stopped working in 1986, became a housewife after her marriage and childbirth and because of her husband’s work involving living in another region of Japan. She divorced in 2009.

In 1994 she won the Pascal Short Story Prize for New Writers for her first book, Kamisama, God.
She became well known in 1996 for her book Hebi Wo Fumu, Record Of A Night, which won the Akutagawa Prize that year.

The Briefcase, Sensei no Kaban, published in Japanese in 2001 and English in 2012, won the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, one of Japan’s much sought-after literary awards. It was a best-seller, translated into several languages and was adapted for television. Kawakami is known as a haiku poet, a literary critic and a provocative essayist. She is one of the most acclaimed writers in Japan.

The narrator of The Briefcase, Tsukiko, is a solitary thirty-seven-year-old liberated woman who likes to eat and drink sake and beer at her local bar. She is an office worker and lives alone in an apartment in Tokyo. One night she goes to her usual local bar and sits at the counter next to a man who stares at her, a conversation ensues.

She discovers that the man sitting next to her is Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, her former high school teacher, but now a retired widower in his seventies. In her school days, she used to address him as Sensei (teacher) and will continue to call him Sensei throughout the story.

With random ones to follow, this fortuitous meeting will lead to an unusual relationship which develops calmly and unobtrusively into an attachment that grows stronger with time to become deep affection. Tsukiko and Sensei drink and eat in the same place, alone or together. They go shopping on Saturdays, go wild mushroom foraging in the mountains with their local barman and his brother, on a Sunday. They even spend a weekend in each other’s company in a spa. They nevertheless respect their mutual privacy and freedom.

Whenever and whatever place he goes to, morning or evening, Sensei always carries his inseparable briefcase. Hence the title of the novel and the last chapter heading.

The Briefcase evokes several themes: loneliness, subtle romance and tasty seasonal food. It also underlines the beauty of nature in every season. Like the picnics in the spring to admire the spectacular show of cherry blossom (Sakura), the weekend excursion to an island in a small guest house with a scenic view over the sea in the summer. The mushroom picking in the woods including the spectacular starry nights in the autumn. Moreover, the enjoyment of a warm sake in the harshly cold winter. The array of dishes described represent a gourmet reference to Japanese seasonal, tasty food, loved and appreciated by the two protagonists.

The Briefcase is a bitter-sweet story written with a good deal of sensitivity and interspersed with some Japanese haïku (unrhymed Japanese poems). The novel is charming as well as compelling in its simplicity, its straightforwardness with no chain of events nor suspense, like a Japanese print whose beauty relies on its purified, minimal art style. The author focuses on the relationship between the two solitary, unsuited people, Tsukiko and Sensei. They are different from each other in every aspect but succeed gradually to discover one another. Their feelings evolve slowly at the same rhythm as the changing seasons to become a selfless love-relationship that surpasses the age gap and conventional traditions.

At the end of the novel, we unexpectedly discover that the whole story has been a flashback, a sweet melancholic reminiscence by Tsukiko about her short time with Sensei before he died. His desolate absence, leaving her disconsolate with his empty briefcase – which used to be an essential part of him – lying next to her dressing table. It is a moving ending to a refined, poetic novel.