Natur och Kultur, 2012.
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2012:2
Review Section: Adult Fiction
Who is the Invisible Man on the cover of this book, the suit and tie and Homburg hat with no face? He is Bengt Åkerberg, lately deceased father of Peter, who has the duty of sorting out Bengt’s flat and office. Peter also sets out on a daunting expedition into the hinterland of his father in a belated effort to pin him down. Bengt was an engineer, small businessman and self-styled inventor, whose presence in Peter and his elder brother’s lives was mostly an absence. When Peter was three, his parents separated acrimoniously, something the boy blames in part on his own birth and clinginess.
Playing with friends, he would boast that his father was up in space, testpiloting rockets. As a hippyish adolescent, periodically obliged to visit his father who was then living in Berlin, he was subjected to various humiliations, which included being dragged to the barber and the gent’s outfitter.
Bengt loved expensive tailoring and luxury cruises in the company of pretty women; loved good living, fine wines and spirits and dining at the best hotel restaurants, where he was on easy terms with top chefs and sommeliers. He enjoyed cooking and occasionally took his clients on mushrooming expeditions from his summer cottage, yet was regarded as a wimp by his rugged father-in-law and the latter’s hunting cronies. But what else? The years just before and just after Bengt was sent packing by his wife are a total blank in Peter’s memory.
As he goes through his father’s effects, his attempts to learn more about the man are mere grabs at shadows. Peter has managed to get his father to talk about memories in recent years, enticing the technophile with the novelty of recording them on a tape recorder, but even these, when replayed, are just the same old boastful smokescreens.
When a parent dies we inevitably step forward into their shoes and Peter, who has taken up temporary residence in the flat, does this quite literally, donning his father’s suits and footwear, smoking his cigars, drinking his whisky and spending his bundles of cash on nightly gourmet dining. He goes through punctiliously filed paperwork and other potential sources of clues, and in the end uncovers a man whose epicurean habits have drained his bank accounts dry, whose bombast was ultimately a cover for shyness, and whose thwarted efforts at instilling backbone into his disappointing sons were doubtless well meant. What chance did a man whose own childhood was so arid ever have of becoming a good father?
The Bengt of old age, it emerges, was a sad individual who replayed world darts tournaments solo in his office, lived alone with his indulged cat, hated the exposure of his paltry purchases on the supermarket conveyor belt and kept a surprising stash of banana-flavoured condoms – probably more in hope than expectation.
Handberg hauntingly describes that strange, becalmed yet activity-filled bubble we inhabit between the death and funeral of a parent, and the physical exhaustion that results from trying to assimilate a fuller picture of that parent into our universe. He evokes the numbness, the guilt and the uncomfortable discovery that we are more like our parents than we care to acknowledge. Handberg has fine-tuned his stylistic sensitivities as an acclaimed translator and deploys his acute ear for language as he takes us from the unreal wait in the final hours at the hospital through to the surreal duty of ash scattering. In places the text feels slightly overwritten: how many metaphors do we require for the unequal father-son relationship? How many times does he need to refer back to the infamous pistol incident or the clash over the boy Peter’s difficulties in learning to write his letters properly? But this is a minor quibble about a novel that really grew on this reader, and the repetitions could in fact be read as a perfect capture of the way thoughts of difficult times can play on our minds at times of bereavement.