A man called ove a novel, p.15
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.15

           Fredrik Backman
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  decision about Rune, do you think they’ve actually come to a real conclusion about it? They NEVER will! It’ll go to appeal and then they’ll drag it out and put it through their shitty bureaucratic grind! You understand? You think it’ll happen quickly, but it takes months! Years! You think I’m going to stick around here just because that old sod went all helpless?”

  The cat didn’t answer.

  “You don’t understand! Understand?” Ove hissed and turned around.

  He felt the cat’s eyes on his back as marched inside.

  That is not the reason why Ove and the cat are sitting in the Saab in the parking area outside the hospital. But it does have a fairly direct connection with Ove standing there shoveling snow when that journalist woman in her slightly too large green jacket turned up outside his house.

  “Ove?” she asked behind him, as if she was concerned that he might have changed his identity since she last came here to disturb him.

  Ove continued shoveling without in any way acknowledging her presence.

  “I only want to ask you a few questions. . . .” she tried.

  “Ask them somewhere else. I don’t want them here,” Ove answered, scattering snow about him in a way that made it difficult to tell whether he was shoveling or digging.

  “But I only want t—” she said, but she was interrupted by Ove and the cat going into the house and slamming the door in her face.

  Ove and the cat squatted in the hall and waited for her to leave. But she didn’t leave. She started banging on the door and calling out: “But you’re a hero!!!”

  “She’s absolutely psychotic, that woman,” said Ove to the cat.

  The cat didn’t disagree.

  When she carried on banging and shouting even louder, Ove didn’t know what to do, so he threw the door open and put his finger over his mouth, hushing her, as if in the next moment he was going to point out that this was actually a library.

  She attempted to grin up at his face, waving something that Ove instinctively perceived as a camera of some sort. Or something else. It wasn’t so easy knowing what cameras looked like anymore in this bloody society.

  Then she tried to step into his hall. Maybe she shouldn’t have done that.

  Ove raised his big hand and pushed her back over the threshold as a reflex, so that she almost fell headfirst into the snow.

  “I don’t want anything,” said Ove.

  She regained her balance and waved the camera at him, while yelling something. Ove wasn’t listening. He looked at the camera as if it were a weapon, and then decided to flee. This person was clearly not a reasonable person.

  So the cat and Ove stepped out the door, locked it, and headed off as quick as they could towards the parking area. The journalist woman jogged along behind them.

  To be absolutely clear about it, though, no part of this bears any relation to why Ove is now sitting outside the hospital. But when Parvaneh stood knocking on the door of Ove’s house, fifteen minutes or so later, holding her three-year-old by the hand, and when no one opened and then she heard voices from the parking area, this, so to speak, has a good deal to do with Ove sitting outside the hospital.

  Parvaneh and the child came around the corner of the parking area and saw Ove standing outside his closed garage door with his hands sullenly shoved into his pockets. The cat was sitting at his feet looking guilty.

  “What are you doing?” said Parvaneh.

  “Nothing,” said Ove defensively.

  Some knocking sounds were coming from the inside of the garage door.

  “What was that?” said Parvaneh, staring at it with surprise.

  Ove suddenly seemed extremely interested in a particular section of the asphalt under one of his shoes. The cat looked a bit as if it were about to start whistling and trying to walk away.

  Another knock came from the inside of the garage door.

  “Hello?” said Parvaneh.

  “Hello?” answered the garage door.

  Parvaneh’s eyes widened.

  “Christ . . . have you locked someone in the garage, Ove?!” Ove didn’t answer. Parvaneh shook him as if trying to dislodge some coconuts.


  “Yes, yes. But I didn’t do it on purpose, for God’s sake,” he muttered and wriggled out of her grip.

  Parvaneh shook her head.

  “Not on purpose?”

  “No, not on purpose,” said Ove, as if this should wrap up the discussion.

  When he noticed that Parvaneh was obviously expecting some sort of clarification, he scratched his head and sighed.

  “Her. Well. She’s one of those journalist people. It wasn’t bloody me who locked her in. I was going to lock myself and the cat in there. But then she followed us. And, you know. Things took their course.”

  Parvaneh started massaging her temples.

  “I can’t deal with this. . . .”

  “Naughty,” said the three-year-old and shook her finger at Ove.

  “Hello?” said the garage door.

  “There’s no one here!” Ove hissed back.

  “But I can hear you!” said the garage door.

  Ove sighed and looked despondently at Parvaneh. As if he was about to exclaim: “You hear that, even garage doors are talking to me these days?”

  Parvaneh waved him aside, walked up to the door, leaned her face up close, and knocked tentatively. The door knocked back. As if it expected to communicate by Morse code from now on. Parvaneh cleared her throat.

  “Why do you want to talk to Ove?” she said, relying on the conventional alphabet.

  “He’s a hero!”

  “A . . . what?”

  “Okay, sorry. So: my name is Lena; I work at the local newspaper, and I want to intervie—”

  Parvaneh looked at Ove in shock.

  “What does she mean, a hero?”

  “She’s just prattling on!” Ove protested.

  “He saved a man’s life; he’d fallen on the track!” yelled the garage door.

  “Are you sure you’ve got the right Ove?” said Parvaneh.

  Ove looked insulted.

  “I see. So now it’s out of the question that I could be a hero, is it?” he muttered.

  Parvaneh peered at him suspiciously. The three-year-old tried to grab hold of what was left of the cat’s tail, with an excitable “Kitty!” “Kitty” did not look particularly impressed by this and tried to hide behind Ove’s legs.

  “What have you done, Ove?” said Parvaneh in a low, confidential voice, taking two steps away from the garage door.

  The three-year-old chased the cat around his feet. Ove tried to figure out what he should do with his hands.

  “Ah, so I hauled a suit off the rails, it’s nothing to make a bloody fuss about,” he mumbled.

  Parvaneh tried to keep a straight face.

  “Or to have a giggle about, actually,” said Ove sourly.

  “Sorry,” said Parvaneh.

  The garage door called out something that sounded like: “Hello? Are you still there?”

  “No!” Ove bellowed.

  “Why are you so terrifically angry?” the garage door wondered.

  Ove was starting to look hesitant. He leaned towards Parvaneh.

  “I . . . don’t know how to get rid of her,” he said, and if Parvaneh had not known better she might have concluded that there was something pleading in his eyes. “I don’t want her in there on her own with the Saab!” he whispered gravely.

  Parvaneh nodded, in confirmation of the unfortunate aspects of the situation. Ove lowered a tired, mediating hand between the three-year-old and the cat before that situation went out of control around his shoes. The three-year-old looked as if she was ready to try to hug the cat. The cat looked as if it was ready to pick out the three-year-old from a lineup at a police station. Ove managed to catch the three-year-old, who burst into peals of laughter.

  “Why are you here in the first place?” Ove demanded of Parvaneh as he handed over the little bundle l
ike a sack of potatoes.

  “We’re taking the bus to the hospital to pick up Patrick and Jimmy,” she answered.

  She saw the way Ove’s face twitched above his cheekbones when she said “bus.”

  “We . . .” Parvaneh began, as if articulating the beginnings of a thought.

  She looked at the garage door, then looked at Ove.

  “I can’t hear what you’re saying! Talk louder!” yelled the garage door.

  Ove immediately took two steps away from it. At once, Parvaneh smiled confidently at him. As if she had just worked out the solution to a crossword.

  “Hey, Ove! How about this: if you give us a lift to the hospital, I’ll help you get rid of this journalist! Okay?”

  Ove looked up. He didn’t look a bit convinced. Parvaneh threw out her arms.

  “Or I’ll tell the journalist that I can tell a story or two about you, Ove,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

  “Story? What story?” the garage door called out and started banging in an excitable manner.

  Ove looked dejectedly at the garage door.

  “This is blackmail,” he said desperately to Parvaneh.

  Parvaneh nodded cheerfully.

  “Ove ackatted de clauwn!” said the three-year-old and nodded in an initiated way at the cat, clearly because she felt that Ove’s aversion to the hospital needed further explanation to whoever was not there the last time they went.

  The cat seemed not to know what this meant. But if the clown had been anywhere near as tiresome as this three-year-old, the cat didn’t take an entirely negative view of Ove hitting someone.

  And so this is the reason why Ove is sitting here now. The cat looks personally let down by Ove for making it travel all the way in the backseat with the three-year-old. Ove adjusts the newspapers on the seats. He feels he’s been tricked. When Parvaneh said she’d “get rid of” the journalist, he didn’t have a very clear idea of exactly how she’d manage it. Obviously he didn’t have expectations of the woman being conjured away in a puff of smoke or knocked out with a spade or buried in the desert or anything of that kind.

  In fact the only thing Parvaneh had done was to open the garage door, give that journalist her card, and say, “Call me and we’ll talk about Ove.” Was that really a way of getting rid of anyone? Ove doesn’t think, properly speaking, that it’s a way of getting rid of anyone at all.

  But now it’s too late, of course. Now, damn it, he’s sitting here waiting outside the hospital for the third time in less than a week. Blackmail, that’s what it is.

  Added to this, Ove has the cat’s resentful stares to contend with. Something in its eyes reminds him of the way Sonja used to look at him.

  “They won’t be coming to take Rune away. They say they’re going to do it, but they’ll be busy with the process for many years,” says Ove to the cat.

  Maybe he’s also saying it to Sonja. And maybe to himself. He doesn’t know.

  “At least stop feeling so sorry for yourself. If it wasn’t for me you’d be living with the kid, and then you wouldn’t have much left of what you have now for a tail. Think about that!” He snorts at the cat, in an attempt to change the subject.

  The cat rolls onto its side, away from Ove, and goes to sleep in protest. Ove looks out the window again. He knows very well that the three-year-old isn’t allergic at all. He knows very well that Parvaneh just lied to him so she wouldn’t have to take care of the Cat Annoyance.

  He’s not some bloody senile old man.



  Every man needs to know what he’s fighting for.” That was apparently what people said. Or at least it was what Sonja had once read out aloud to Ove from one of her books. Ove couldn’t remember which one; there were always so many books around that woman. In Spain she had bought a whole bag of them, despite not even speaking Spanish. “I’ll learn while I’m reading,” she said. As if that was the way you did it. Ove told her he was a bit more about thinking for himself rather than reading what a lot of other clots had on their minds. Sonja just smiled and caressed his cheek.

  Then he carried her absurdly oversize bags to the bus. Felt the driver smelling of wine as he went by, but concluded that maybe this was the way they did things in Spain and left it at that. Sat there in the seat as Sonja moved his hand to her belly and that was when he felt his child kicking, for the first and last time. He stood up and went to the bathroom and when he was halfway down the aisle the bus lurched, scraped against the central barrier, and then there was a moment of silence. As if time was taking a deep breath. Then: an explosion of splintering glass. The merciless screeching of twisting metal. Violent crunches as the cars behind the bus slammed into it.

  And all the screams. He’d never forget them.

  Ove was thrown about and only remembered falling on his stomach. He looked around for her, terrified, among the tumult of human bodies, but she was gone. He threw himself forward, cutting himself under a rain of glass from the ceiling, but it was as if a furious wild animal were holding him back and forcing him down on the floor in unreflecting humiliation. It would pursue him every night for the rest of his life: his utter impotence in the situation.

  He sat by her bed every moment of the first week. Until the nurses insisted that he shower and change his clothes. Everywhere they looked at him with sympathetic stares and expressed their “condolences.” A doctor came in and spoke to Ove in an indifferent, clinical voice about the need to “prepare himself for the likelihood of her not waking up again.” Ove threw that doctor through a door. A door that was locked and shut. “She isn’t dead,” he raved down the corridor. “Stop behaving as if she was dead!” No one at the hospital dared make that mistake again.

  On the tenth day, as the rain smattered against the windows and the radio spoke of the worst storm in several decades, Sonja opened her eyes in torturous little slits, caught sight of Ove, and stole her hand into his. Enfolded her finger in the palm of his hand.

  Then she fell asleep and slept through the night. When she woke up again the nurses offered to tell her, but Ove grimly insisted that he was the one who would do it. Then he told her everything in a composed voice, while caressing her hands in his, as if they were very, very cold. He told her about the driver smelling of wine and the bus veering into the crash barrier and the collision. The smell of burned rubber. The earsplitting crashing sound.

  And about a child that would never come now.

  And she wept. An ancient, inconsolable despair that screamed and tore and shredded them both as countless hours passed. Time and sorrow and fury flowed together in stark, long-drawn darkness. Ove knew there and then that he would never forgive himself for having got up from his seat at that exact moment, for not being there to protect them. And knew that this pain was forever.

  But Sonja would not have been Sonja if she had let the darkness win. So, one morning, Ove did not know how many days had passed since the accident, expressing herself quite succinctly, she declared that she wanted to start having physiotherapy. And when Ove looked at her as if it were his own spine screaming like a tortured animal every time she moved, she gently leaned her head against his chest and whispered: “We can busy ourselves with living or with dying, Ove. We have to move on.”

  And that’s how it was.

  In the following months, back in Sweden, Ove met innumerable men in white shirts. They sat behind desks made of light-colored wood in various municipal offices and they apparently had endless amounts of time to instruct Ove in what documents had to be filled in for various purposes, but no time at all to discuss the measures that were needed for Sonja to get better.

  A woman was dispatched to the hospital from one of the municipal authorities, where she bullishly explained that Sonja could be placed in “a service home for other people in her situation.” Something about how “the strain of everyday life” quite understandably could be “excessive” for Ove. She didn’t say it right out, but it was cl
ear as crystal what she was driving at. She did not believe that Ove could see himself staying with his wife now. “Under present conditions,” she kept repeating, nodding discreetly at the bedside. She spoke to Ove as if Sonja were not even in the room.

  Admittedly Ove opened the door this time, but she was ejected all the same.

  “The only home we’re going to is our own! Where we LIVE!” Ove roared at her, and in pure frustration and anger he threw one of Sonja’s shoes out of the room.

  Afterwards he had to go and ask the nurses, who’d almost been hit by it, if they knew where it had gone. Which of course made him even angrier. It was the first time since the accident that he heard Sonja laughing. As if it was pouring out of her, without the slightest possibility of stopping it, like she was being wrestled to the ground by her own giggling. She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors, as if they meant to do away with the laws of time and space. It made Ove feel as if his chest was slowly rising out of the ruins of a collapsed house after an earthquake. It gave his heart space to beat again.

  He went home and rebuilt the whole house, ripped out the old countertop and put in a new, lower one. Even managed to find a specially made stove. Reconstructed the doorframes and fitted ramps over all the thresholds. The day after Sonja was allowed to leave the hospital, she went back to her teacher training. In the spring she sat her examination. There was an advertisement in the newspaper for a teaching position in a school with the worst reputation in town, with the sort of class that no qualified teacher with all the parts of her brain correctly screwed together would voluntarily face. It was attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder before attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder had been invented. “There’s no hope for these boys and girls,” the headmaster soberly explained in the interview. “This is not education, this is storage.” Maybe Sonja understood how it felt to be described as such. The vacant position attracted only one applicant, and she got those boys and girls to read Shakespeare.

  In the meantime Ove was so weighed down with anger that Sonja sometimes had to ask him to go outside so he didn’t demolish the furniture. It pained her infinitely to see his shoulders so loaded down with the will to destroy. Destroy that bus driver. The travel agency. The crash barrier of that highway. The wine producer. Everything and everyone. Punch and keep punching until every bastard had been obliterated. That was all he wanted to do. He put that anger in his shed. He put it in the garage. He spread it over the ground during his inspection rounds. But that wasn’t all. In the end he also started putting it in letters. He wrote to the Spanish government. To the Swedish authorities. To the police. To the court. But no one took responsibility. No one cared. They answered by reference to legal texts or other authorities. Made excuses. When the council refused to build a ramp at the stairs of the school where Sonja worked, Ove wrote letters and complaints for months. He wrote letters to newspapers. He tried to sue the council. He literally inundated them with the unfathomable vengefulness of a father who has been robbed.

  But everywhere, sooner or later, he was stopped by men in white shirts with strict, smug expressions on their faces. And one couldn’t fight them. Not only did they have the state on their side, they were the state. The last complaint was rejected. The fighting was over because the white shirts had decided so. And Ove never forgave them that.

  Sonja saw everything. She understood where he was hurting. So she let him be angry, let all that anger find its outlet somewhere, in some way. But on one of those early summer evenings in May that always come along bearing gentle promises about the summer ahead, she rolled up to him, the wheels leaving soft marks on the parquet floor. He was sitting at the kitchen table writing one of his letters, and she took his pen away from him, slipped her hand into his, and pressed her finger into his rough palm. Leaned her forehead tenderly against his chest.

  “That’s enough now, Ove. No more letters. There’s no space for life with all these letters of yours.”

  And she looked up, softly caressed his cheek, and smiled.

  “It’s enough now, my darling Ove.”

  And then it was enough.

  The next morning Ove got up at dawn, drove the Saab to her school, and with his own bare hands built the disabled ramp the council was refusing to put up. And after that she came home every evening for as long as Ove could remember and
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