Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113022086
Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2011:1
Johannes Anyuru is first and foremost a poet, and this work is his first venture into the world of novel writing. It had a mixed reception among Swedish critics. Åsa Beckman, writing in Dagens Nyheter, concluded that the writer’s transition from poet to novelist was just ‘all right’. Some readers might have liked a little less interior monologue and less of the present tense, which all too often turns the narrator into a commentator and description into stage-directions. Anyuru first gained fame as a poet winning the prize Guldprinsen (The Golden Prince) for his poetry collection Det är bara gudarna som är nya (Only the Gods are New) in 2003. In 2009, his collection of poetry Städerna inuti Hall (The Cities Within Hall) was nominated for the August Prize. Taking his inspiration from Homer, he describes modern suburban Swedish life with great intensity and verbal skill. Anyuru’s novel with its youthful pathos and suggestive language is informed by his poetic skills. Many passages are prose poems in their own right: ‘Lost this summer night. Lost the stars and the serviettes. Lost the traffic...’ The sentences paint pictures of landscapes and situations. The initial reading of the beginning of the book can be off-putting; the reader should go back and stop to savour the sentences. Many names of characters and situations are introduced quite abruptly. The main character, Francis, is a successful young sculptor, whose father is from Uganda, his mother from Sweden, like the author’s parents. At the beginning of the book, we find Francis in Stockholm introducing his guests to his sculpture exhibition. Francis feels like an outsider in spite of his success and is forever searching for a place to stay – for a spiritual home. Perhaps because his father is a Muslim, he is drawn to Islam. He is also searching for a permanent love, but alludes to two earlier lovers, Veronica and Elvira. Later, in Madrid, he falls in love with the climate, the vibrant town, its street life and its language, as well as with Nina, who is a half-Japanese, half-Peruvian artist. At this point the novel comes to life. Anyara describes Francis’ time in Madrid in a detailed, realistic style and displays the skills of a convincing prose writer. He creates amusing dialogues and street scenes, which alternate with interiors from transvestite clubs, artists’ bars and discos. As he weaves passages describing his friends Zorache, Mauro and Kenny into the story, together with memories of the women in his life, Veronica, Elvira and Anisia, his prose suddenly sounds lively and convincing. But there are also memories of works of art, which include Rodin’s The Gates of Hell and Francis Bacon’s paintings. And, throughout, he continues to search for the meaning of life and for God. His life in Sweden is often presented in brief snapshots of immigrant life in suburbia: friends in gangs doing hip-hop and rapping, sharing drugs and drink, sometimes resorting to crime and fights that can end in sudden death. Francis’ artistic gifts and intelligence have saved him from prison and death. From time to time, his thoughts turn to his father, an ex-fighter pilot, who had escaped from Uganda and sunk his uniform in the Mediterranean. The love story between Francis and Nina ends in tragedy. What has been a great passion for Francis was only a minor interlude for Nina. ‘I can’t do relationships,’ she says. He wants to tear out his heart and bite it. The tragedy turns to tragicomedy! Only God exists, and the body, and he must try to believe in God now – otherwise he will die, his heart will stop. He covers the whole of the next page with the letters of Nina’s name, so they look like falling snowflakes – a concrete poem. But in the end he realises that his love was an illusion. ‘Farväl. Du var aldrig du. Du var jag.’ (Goodbye. You were never you. You were me.) His return to Madrid where he, full of sorrow and desperation, seeks refuge in a neighbourhood mosque and meets with fellow Muslims, brings the story to a convincing and moving end.