Reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
I confess. I’m a big fan of Johannes Anyuru. On seeing him once at the Gothenburg Book Fair I was so nervous about introducing myself I ended up buying three books and a subscription to a magazine I knew I’d never find the time to read just so I wouldn’t have to. I think his previous novel En storm kom från paradiset (A Storm Blew in From Paradise) is one of the best books I’ve read in Swedish, and his poetry floors me every time I pick it up.
So it is with some sadness that I find myself feeling ambivalent about this book. And the sadness is all the deeper because I get what Anyuru has set out to do, and I think he’s come very close to achieving it.
In essence, De kommer att drunkna i sina tårar is a book about hope and hopelessness. It opens more or less in the present day, on a chaotic, abortive terror attack at a bookshop event for a controversial comic artist. One of the three attackers senses her mind is trying to tell her something – she’s not supposed to be here, not supposed to be doing this – and at the last minute she makes a desperate choice, stopping it all.
The narrative then jumps forward a couple of years, to an author who is investigating the fateful attack, as he goes, at her request, to visit the girl, now interred in a psychiatric institution. She hands him a stack of papers – her account of what has happened to her. And it is here that the novel’s scope expands into a dystopian imagining of what the future could become if the current Islamophobic tendencies in Western European societies are left unchecked. Because the girl says she is really from an alternative future. A future in which the terror attack in the bookshop went to its full conclusion. A future in which Amin, one of the other attackers, has become a symbol of all that is evil and ‘anti-Swedish’, to be used as a tool of oppression by the now fascist state against Muslims and those who would defend them. The lengths to which this oppression stretches are truly horrifying, and many readers will undoubtedly say ‘this could never happen’, and perhaps it couldn’t, not in exactly the way Anyuru describes. And yet, it’s not as if there are no precedents.
The narrator continues to meet with the girl, and gradually finds out more of her story, though he remains sceptical, unsure whether to attribute it to her alleged schizophrenia. In chapters that alternate between the narrator’s visits to the clinic and further development of the girl’s story, we are repeatedly reminded of the terrible consequences of doing nothing. The narrator, himself a Muslim, with a wife and a small child, is so affected by the Islamophobia he can already see around him that he and his wife consider leaving Sweden. And without giving any spoilers, it is here that hope enters the picture.
Anyuru’s writing is beautiful throughout: his mix of down-to-earth poeticism and urgency pervades the text from start to finish. But I can’t get over the feeling of ambivalence. Though the characters are for the most part sensitively depicted, they’re not free from cliché. In most places, his message is nuanced, but I’m not the first reviewer to have felt Anyuru’s brushstrokes are a little too broad at times, and I think this is what finally lets the book down. Anyone who has read Anyuru knows he is strongly politically motivated, and his way of framing a strong message in breathtaking prose is one of the reasons readers, including myself, love his writing. This book is a searing warning about a possible future, but it’s not quite a brilliant novel.