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Försmådd Hans Gunnarsson, Försmådd (Rejected)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2012.

Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2013:1

Review Section: Fiction

It is a sad fact in the publishing world that the two-way traffic in English and foreign fiction is heavier in exports from our shores than imports to us. Here we have a respectable long novella which from a British author might just have found its way into Swedish or a number of other languages. But to make the journey in the other direction a much higher standard is required, and the thinness of plot, character and locality may render its translated title prophetic.

The first-person narrator, Ingvar, is a somewhat unconvincing 65-year-old, unsociable history teacher who spends most of the brief period of the narrative on sick leave from school, suffering from eczema. Everything is seen through his eyes, and we are given no insight into his teaching, his pupils or his colleagues. All we know is that he admits to an autopilot technique on the few days he does teach, and that his interest in the Holocaust as a subject for a planned thematic week at the school is as much of an obsession as is an essay he has written on racism and intolerance. 

Equally obsessive and disconnected from reality is his infatuation with the headmistress for whom he is meant to deputise in her week’s absence. The mismatch of character and responsibility  rather strains the reader’s credulity, but what saves the book is the humour which emerges from this incongruity and from the repetitive banality of the protagonist’s situation. Gunnarsson is no Kafka, but we have to admire his attempt at depicting the striving of the inadequate individual to interpret the actions and personalities of those around him.

This is a crime novel without a crime, a detective novel without detection, a mystery without resolution. Ingvar discovers that Stina, the headmistress, has not gone to visit family in Finland as she claimed, but to Africa. Entrusted with her keys, he finds a box of pornographic photographs under her bed, and on her return, himself hidden under her bed, witnesses her in flagrante with a black youth he had assumed to be her secret godchild. The plot, with its focus on the detail of everyday life, often turns to farce. Ingvar is constantly cycling to Stina’s house, in her absence or presence, in pursuit of an unrequited relationship with her and to satisfy his curiosity. The farce extends to her neighbour, a woman who owns a printing firm to whom Ingvar entrusts the printing of his essay, for which she grossly overcharges for a mistakenly excessive print-run, and includes an almost silent encounter with her two elderly employees who seem to function in the narrative as Kafkaesque uncommunicative clowns.

Ingvar’s efforts at detection never reveal, at one extreme, who keeps deflating his and Stina’s cycle tyres, nor at the other why Stina’s black friend ultimately disappears: he suspects murder and burial in the garden, but this suspicion coincides with a psychological breakdown which results in a night in a police cell, followed by dismissal from his post when his pestering of the headmistress goes too far.

Gunnarsson’s eighth book gives us an anti-hero for our time, a man who has already taught at six schools and is on the  point of retirement. This is a portrait of a social failure, not a critique of educational systems. Mysteries remain unsolved, but the reader can relish the humour of the deluded perspective, the repetitive banality and the farcical nature of the loner’s inevitable misinterpretations.

Also by Hans Gunnarsson

Other reviews by Tom Geddes

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