Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
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.