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Analfabeten som kunde räkna Jonas Jonasson, Analfabeten som kunde räkna (The Illiterate Who Could Count)

Pirat,  2013.

Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious

The book will be published in an English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles under the title The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Ecco (Harper Collins, USA) in April 2014.

Any writer whose first novel turns out  to be an international best seller on  the scale of The Hundred-Year-Old Man  Who Climbed Out of the Window and  Disappeared will inevitably be faced  with a dilemma when it comes to their  second book. Some will be tempted to  show their versatility by diverging from  the form and content of their previous  success, while others will prefer to build  on that success by treading a familiar path.  In The Illiterate Who Could Count, Jonas  Jonasson was evidently initially drawn  to the former approach, swapping, as he  does, the 100-year-old white Swedish  male protagonist of his debut novel for  a young black South African female in  his subsequent offering. But this second  novel nevertheless finds him decidedly in  the ‘tried-and-tested’ camp, as he mines  once more the material of his earlier  work to produce another entertaining,  Fieldingesque romp. The plot interweaves  fact and fiction and introduces a motley  crew of real-life characters – including  King Carl XVI Gustaf and Swedish Prime  Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt – into the  narrative.

We first meet the heroine of  Analfabeten…, the teenage Nombeko  Mayeki, in 1970s Soweto, where she finds  herself in charge of emptying the latrines.  Despite this inauspicious start in life, she  too will journey across the world (to  Sweden), thanks to her intelligence, drive  and the occasional quirk of fate, meeting  – like the 100-year-old Allan Karlsson – a  whole array of picaresque characters on  her way and making her mark on world  events.

Nombeko is an exceptionally gifted  young girl whose restraint and cool  presence of mind help her to rise above  the often unbridled farce that unfolds  around her. For, it must be said, the  characterisation is a tad cliché-ridden,  with some of the characters seemingly  added only to fulfil a comic function  rather than to help drive the narrative.  But Jonasson is clearly aiming to do  more than just tickle the reader’s funny  bone; the humour is harnessed to attack  and ridicule fundamentalism in all its  forms, as becomes clear already in the  early pages of the novel when one of  the characters suddenly morphs from  ardent monarchist to fierce republican,  apparently on the basis of nothing more  profound than a perceived personal snub.

Unlike the 100-year-old…, however, Analfabeten… loses its momentum in the second half of the book. Some  characters are introduced at length, only  to be discarded just a few pages later and  this sidelining can at times be frustrating.  In addition, the humour occasionally  wears a little thin, as in a sitcom where  the running jokes have been milked to  death. That said, although some (but not  all) readers who enjoyed Jonasson’s first  novel may find Analfabeten… slightly  repetitive and formulaic, those who  are reading him for the first time will  undoubtedly find much to savour and  enjoy.

Other reviews by Kevin Halliwell

Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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