Reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
Renowned for his vivid imagery and soulsearching portrayals of contemporary urban life in Sweden, poet and author Johannes Anyuru returns with an intensely personal tale of suffering and determination.
En storm kom från paradiset is a tense, sparse re-telling of the life of Anyuru’s father, who is referred to as ‘P’. It takes in P’s childhood in the Ugandan savannah, his pilot’s training in Greece for the Ugandan air force, his time as a refugee in Tanzania and Kenya, the encounter with Anyuru’s Swedish mother and their move to a provincial town in Sweden. The narrative is interspersed with Anyuru’s own childhood memories of his father, of the illness that would later kill him, of his shiftlessness and disappointment with life and his attempts to find a place where he could belong.
Anyuru’s language is informed by the poetry with which he has built a name for himself over the past decade. However, En storm… is much defter than Anyuru’s first novel Skulle jag dö under andra himlar (If I Died Under Other Skies), in which – for this reader at least – the poetic language undermined the narrative, seeming aloof and making for a less-than-enthralling read. In this second novel, the repetitive rhythm of Anyuru’s poetic language enhances the tension and atmosphere. It also highlights the writer’s background in performance poetry and rap, as in the following passage, where Anyuru creates loops of sound and rhythm, building the text through repetition of words and ideas:
Han minns inte vem han är. Månen, den påminner honom om något. Om moln. Om vinden. Han minns inte. Han minns inte historien. (He doesn’t remember who he is. The moon, it reminds him of something. Of clouds. Of the wind. He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember the story.)
This looping is found periodically throughout the text, which is itself interwoven with flashbacks and metanarratives. Indeed, Anyuru writes the writing of the novel into the novel, through descriptions of time spent with his father.
One episode that has kept coming back to me takes place as P arrives, disorientated and disillusioned, at the refugee camp where he is to spend many months. He beds down for the night but wakes after a few hours with a searing pain in his ear. Initially fearing that he has gone mad, he attempts to extract whatever it is, eventually pulling out the hind quarters of a termite that has started to burrow into his ear canal. The profound terror is exquisitely described by Anyuru, and staying power of the experience is a testament to his skill as a storyteller.
The novel has won, or been shortlisted for, a clutch of prestigious literary prizes, including Swedish national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet’s literature prize, with the motivation that ‘the novel spins a thread between Sweden and the world, and constitutes a natural combination of a writing career anchored in, but never limited by, reality’.
This novel is a shining example of literature’s ability to give its readers a new perspective on the world. It was, for me, an excellent way to learn about the emotional consequences of war and exile on one man’s world, and by implication, the worlds of many others.It portrays the immediate and lasting effects of Idi Amin’s 1971 military coup in Uganda, as well as the distress of being away from home and family when home and family are in turmoil. I can honestly say that En storm… is the best Swedish novel I have read in a long time. I would advise anyone interested in the writing process, in familial and national ties, in pain, healing, loss and rediscovery to read it.