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Johan Kling, Människor helt utan betydelse (People Who Don't Mean Anything)

Norstedts,  2009. ISBN: 9789113019611

Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2010:1

Johan Kling made his name as the director of Darling (2007), a dark comedy set in Stockholm narrating the unlikely meeting of rich girl Eva and the much older unemployed divorcee Bernard. Darling was nominated for many awards, winning the Swedish Film Critics’ Greta Prize and garnering praise for showing how class is still an issue in contemporary Swedish society. In Människor helt utan betydelse, Kling treads similar territory. This rather slender novel gives us a day in the life of Magnus, a freelance TV and film editor, as he struggles through one sunny day in 1998. There is something of Söderberg’s Doctor Glas about Magnus: no career success, admittedly, and no murders, but the same anxiety, the same lonely, self-critical internal monologue, and the same note of melancholy resignation. It is summer, in Stockholm – so very summery and so clearly Stockholm. Kling has an ear for dialogue and the ability to sketch an identifiable social setting or character with a few strokes of detail, be they brand names, holiday destinations, gestures, or a coffee-table book about lemons. As he goes from place to place encountering different people, Magnus is constantly fretting over something, whether old friendships he has lost or his jealousy towards his girlfriend Josefin. The skilful overlapping of Magnus’ thoughts with the real-life conversations around him is one of the finest things about this book, showing up the superficiality or routine nature of the way people interact with one another, while also outlining a worrier’s thought processes in a way that feels rather too familiar. Magnus is an ambiguous character. On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss him as neurotic. On the other hand, it is easy to feel sorry for him. He has money worries, his girlfriend does not seem to love him as much as he loves her, work is drying up and apparently he has no real friends. Then again, Kling doesn’t tell us everything about Magnus. Much goes unsaid in Människor helt utan betydelse. The package Magnus collects from the post office is presumably a rejected novel, but it is left to the reader to work this out. Where his school friends are, and the reason he left home are equally unclear. There is a hint: Josefin has expressed horror that ‘they didn’t speak to you for two years?’ but precious little else is mentioned about his family. Who, then are the ‘people who don’t mean anything’? On the face of it, Magnus certainly is treated as insignificant by many of those around him. Then again, his thoughts are far less meaningless than the talk of Habitat, house prices and holidays in Portugal which make up the conversations around him.

Darcy Hurford

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