A man called ove a novel, p.20
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.20

           Fredrik Backman
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  and watched the news. At half past nine Ove carried her upstairs to the bedroom. She nagged him for years about moving into the empty downstairs guest room, but Ove refused. After a decade or so she realized that this was his way of showing her that he had no intention of giving up. That God and the universe and all the other things would not be allowed to win. That the swine could go to hell. So she stopped nagging.

  On Friday nights they sat up until half past ten watching television. On Saturdays they had a late breakfast, sometimes as late as eight. Then they went out to do their errands. The building supply store, furniture shop, and garden center. Sonja would buy potting soil and Ove liked to look at tools. They only had a small row house with a tiny outside space, yet there always seemed to be something to plant and something to build. On the way home they’d stop for ice cream. Sonja would have one with chocolate and Ove one with nuts. Once a year the shop raised the price by one krona per ice cream and then, as Sonja put it, Ove would “have a tantrum.” When they got back to the house she’d roll out the little terrace door onto the patio and Ove would help her out of the chair and gently put her on the ground so she could do some gardening in her beloved flowerbeds. In the meantime Ove would fetch a screwdriver and disappear into the house. That was the best thing about the house. It was never finished. There was always a screw somewhere for Ove to tighten.

  On Sundays they went to a café and drank coffee. Ove read the newspaper and Sonja talked. And then it was Monday.

  And one Monday she was no longer there.

  And Ove didn’t know exactly when he became so quiet. He’d always been taciturn, but this was something quite different. Maybe he had started talking more inside his own head. Maybe he was going insane (he did wonder sometimes). It was as if he didn’t want other people to talk to him, he was afraid that their chattering voices would drown out the memory of her voice.

  He lets his fingers run gently across the gravestone, as if running them through the long tassels of a very thick rug. He’s never understood young people who natter on about “finding themselves.” He used to hear that nonstop from all those thirty-year-olds at work. All they ever talked about was how they wanted more “leisure time,” as if that was the only point of working: to get to the point when one didn’t have to do it. Sonja used to laugh at Ove and call him “the most inflexible man in the world.” Ove refused to take that as an insult. He thought there should be some order in things. There should be routines and one should be able to feel secure about them. He could not see how it could be a bad attribute.

  Sonja used to tell people about the time that Ove, in a moment of temporary mental dislocation in the middle of the 1980s, had been persuaded by her to get himself a red Saab, even though in all the years she’d known him he’d always driven a blue one. “They were the worst three years of Ove’s life,” Sonja tittered. Since then, Ove had never driven anything but a blue Saab. “Other wives get annoyed because their husbands don’t notice when they have their hair cut. When I have a haircut my husband is annoyed with me for days because I don’t look the same,” Sonja used to say.

  That’s what Ove misses most of all. Having things the same as usual.

  People need a function, he believes. And he has always been functional, no one can take that away from him.

  It’s thirteen years since Ove bought his blue Saab 9-5 station wagon. Not long after, the Yanks at General Motors bought up the last Swedish-held shares in the company. Ove closed the newspaper that morning with a long string of swear words that continued into a good part of the afternoon. He never bought a car again. He had no intention of placing his foot in an American car, unless his foot and the rest of his body had first been placed in a coffin, they should be bloody clear about that. Sonja had of course also read the article and she had certain objections to Ove’s exact version of events regarding the company’s nationality, but it made no difference. Ove had made up his mind and now he was fixed on it. He was going to drive his car until either he, or it, broke down. Either way, proper cars were not being made anymore, he’d decided. There was only a lot of electronics and crap inside them now. Like driving a computer. You couldn’t even take them apart without the manufacturers whining about “invalid warranties.” So it was just as well. Sonja said once that the car would break down with sorrow the day Ove was buried. And maybe that was true.

  But there was a time for everything, she also said. Often. For example, when the doctors gave her the diagnosis four years ago. She found it easier to forgive than Ove did. Forgive God and the universe and everything. Ove got angry instead. Maybe because he felt someone had to be angry on her behalf, when everything that was evil seemed to assail the only person he’d ever met who didn’t deserve it.

  So he fought the whole world. He fought with hospital personnel and he fought with specialists and chief physicians. He fought with men in white shirts and the council representatives who in the end grew so numerous that he could barely remember their names. There was an insurance policy for this, another insurance policy for that; there was one contact person because Sonja was ill and another because she was in a wheelchair. Then a third contact person so she did not have to go to work and a fourth contact person to try to persuade the bloody authorities that this was precisely what she wanted: to go to work.

  And it was impossible to fight the men in white shirts. And one could not fight a diagnosis.

  Sonja had cancer.

  “We have to take it as it comes,” said Sonja. And that was what they did. She carried on working with her darling troublemakers for as long as she could, until Ove had to push her into the classroom every morning because she no longer had the strength to do it herself. After a year she was down to 75 percent of her full working week. After two years she was on 50 percent. After three years she was on 25 percent. When she finally had to go home she wrote a long personal letter to each of her students and exhorted them to call her if they ever needed anyone to talk to.

  Almost everyone did call. They came to visit in long lines. One weekend there were so many of them in the row house that Ove had to go outside and sit in his toolshed for six hours. When the last of them had left that evening he went around the house carefully assuring himself that nothing had been stolen. As usual. Until Sonja called out to him not to forget to count the eggs in the fridge. Then he gave up. Carried her up the stairs while she laughed at him. He put her in the bed, and then, just before they went to sleep, she turned to him. Hid her finger in the palm of his hand. Burrowed her nose under his collarbone.

  “God took a child from me, darling Ove. But he gave me a thousand others.”

  In the fourth year she died.

  Now he stands there running his hand over her gravestone. Again and again. As if he’s trying to rub her back to life.

  “I’m really going to do it this time. I know you don’t like it. I don’t like it either,” he says in a low voice.

  He takes a deep breath. As if he has to steel himself against her trying to convince him not to do it.

  “See you tomorrow,” he says firmly and stamps the snow off his shoes, as if not wanting to give her a chance to protest.

  Then he takes the little path down to the parking area, with the cat padding along beside him. Out through the black gates, around the Saab, which still has the learner plate stuck to the back door. He opens the passenger door. Parvaneh looks at him, her big brown eyes filled with empathy.

  “I’ve been thinking about something,” she says carefully, as she puts the Saab into gear and pulls off.


  But she can’t be stopped.

  “I was just thinking that maybe I could help you clean out the house. Maybe put Sonja’s things in boxes and—”

  She hardly has time to speak Sonja’s name before Ove’s face darkens, anger stiffening it into a mask.

  “Not another word,” he roars, with a booming sound inside the car.

  “But I was only thi—”

ot another bloody WORD. Have you got it?!”

  Parvaneh nods and goes silent. Shaking with anger, Ove stares out the window all the way home.



  The next morning, after letting the cat out, he fetched Sonja’s father’s old rifle from the attic. He’d decided that his dislike of weapons could never be greater than his dislike of all the empty places she has left behind in their silent little house. It was time now.

  But it seems that someone, somewhere, knows the only way of stopping him is to put something in his way that makes him angry enough not to do it.

  For this reason, he stands now in the little road between the houses, his arms defiantly crossed, looking at the man in the white shirt and saying:

  “I am here because there was nothing good on the TV.”

  The man in the white shirt has been observing him without the slightest hint of emotion through the entire conversation. In fact, whenever Ove has met him, he has been more like a machine than a person. Just like all the other white shirts Ove has run into in his life. The ones who said Sonja was going to die after the coach accident, the ones who refused to take responsibility afterwards and the ones who refused to hold others responsible. The ones who would not build an access ramp at the school. The ones who did not want to let her work. The ones who went through paragraphs of small print to root out some clause meaning they wouldn’t have to pay out any insurance money. The ones who wanted to put her in a home.

  They had all had the same empty eyes. As if they were nothing but shiny shells walking around, grinding away at normal people and pulling their lives to pieces.

  But when Ove says that thing about there being nothing good on TV, he sees a little twitch at the temple of the white shirt. A flash of frustration, perhaps. Amazed anger, possibly. Pure disdain, very likely. It’s the first time Ove has noticed that he’s managed to get under the skin of the white shirt. Of any white shirt at all.

  The man snaps his jaws shut, turns around, and starts to walk away. Not with the measured, objective steps of a council employee in full control, but something else. With anger. Impatience. Vengefully.

  Ove can’t remember anything having made him feel so good in a long, long time.

  Of course, he was supposed to have died today. He had been planning to calmly and peacefully shoot himself in the head just after breakfast. He’d tidied the kitchen and let the cat out and made himself comfortable in his favorite armchair. He’d planned it this way because the cat routinely asked to be let out at this time. One of the few traits of the cat that Ove was highly appreciative of was its reluctance to crap in other people’s homes. Ove was a man of the same ilk.

  But then of course Parvaneh came banging on his door as if it were the last functioning toilet in the civilized world. As if that woman had nowhere to wee at home. Ove put the rifle away behind the radiator so she wouldn’t see it and start interfering. He opened the door and she more or less had to press her telephone into his hand by violent means before he accepted it.

  “What is this?” Ove wanted to know, the telephone held between his index finger and his thumb, as if it smelled bad.

  “It’s for you,” groaned Parvaneh, holding her stomach and mopping sweat from her forehead even though it was below freezing outside. “That journalist.”

  “What do I want with her telephone?”

  “God. It’s not her telephone, it’s my telephone. She’s on the line!” Parvaneh said impatiently.

  Then, before he could protest, she squeezed past him and headed for his bathroom.

  “Yes,” said Ove, lifting the telephone to within a couple of inches of his ear, slightly unclear about whether he was still talking to Parvaneh or the person at the other end.

  “Hi!” yelled the journalist woman, Lena. Ove felt it might be wise to move the phone farther away from his ear. “So, are you ready to give me an interview now?” she went on in a gung-ho tone.

  “No,” said Ove, holding the telephone in front of him to work out how to hang up.

  “Did you read the letter I sent you? Or the newspaper? Have you read the newspaper? I thought I’d let you see it, so you can form an impression of our journalistic style!”

  Ove went into the kitchen. Picked up the newspaper and letter that Adrian fellow had brought over a few days earlier.

  “Have you got it?” roared the journalist woman.

  “Calm yourself down. I’m reading it, aren’t I!” Ove said out loud to the telephone and leaned over the kitchen table.

  “I was just wondering if—” she continued valiantly.

  “Can you CALM DOWN, woman!” Ove raged.

  Suddenly, out the window, Ove noticed a man in a white shirt in a Škoda, driving past his house.

  “Hello?” the journalist woman called just before Ove flew out the front door.

  “Oh, dear, dear,” Parvaneh mumbled anxiously when she came out of the bathroom and caught sight of him careering along between the houses.

  The man in the white shirt got out of the Škoda on the driver’s side outside Rune and Anita’s house.

  “It’s enough now! You hear? You’re NOT driving your car inside the residential area! Not another bloody YARD! You got it?” shouted Ove in the distance, long before he’d even reached him.

  The little man in the white shirt, in a most superior manner, adjusted the cigarette packet in his breast pocket while calmly meeting Ove’s gaze.

  “I have permission.”

  “Like hell you do!”

  The man in the white shirt shrugged. As if to chase away an irritating insect more than anything.

  “And what exactly are you going to do about it, Ove?”

  The question actually caught Ove off-balance. Again. He stopped, his hands trembling with anger, at least a dozen pieces of invective at his disposal. But to his own surprise he could not bring himself to use any of them.

  “I know who you are, Ove. I know everything about all the letters you’ve written about your wife’s accident and your wife’s illness. You’re something of a legend in our offices, you should know,” said the man in the white shirt, his voice quite unwavering.

  Ove’s mouth opened into a crack. The man in the white shirt nodded at him.

  “I know who you are. And I’m only doing my job. A decision is a decision. You can’t do anything about it, you should have learned that by now.”

  Ove took a step towards him but the man put up a hand against his chest and pressed him back. Not violently. Not aggressively. Just softly and firmly, as if the hand did not belong to him but was directly controlled by some robot at the computer center of a municipal authority.

  “Go and watch some TV instead. Before you have more problems with that heart of yours.”

  On the passenger side of the Škoda the determined woman, wearing an identical white shirt, stepped out with a pile of paper in her arms. The man locked the car with a loud bleep. Then he turned his back on Ove as if Ove had never stood there talking to him.

  Ove stayed where he was, his fists clenched at his sides and his chin jutting out as if he were an outraged bull elk. The white shirts disappeared into Anita and Rune’s house. It took a minute before he recovered himself enough to even turn around. But then he did so with determined fury and started walking towards Parvaneh’s house. Parvaneh was standing halfway up the little road.

  “Is that useless husband of yours at home?” Ove growled, walking past her without waiting for an answer.

  Parvaneh didn’t have time to do more than nod before Ove, in four long strides, reached their front door. Patrick opened it, standing there on crutches, casts apparently covering half of his body.

  “Hi, Ove!” he called out cheerfully, trying to wave with a crutch, with the immediate effect that he lost his balance and stumbled into the wall.

  “That trailer you had when you moved in. Where did you get it?” Ove demanded.

  Patrick leaned with his functioning ar
m against the wall. Almost as if he wanted it to look as if he’d meant to stumble into it.

  “What? Oh . . . that trailer. I borrowed it off a guy at work—”

  “Call him. You need to borrow it again.”

  And this was the reason why Ove did not die today. Because he was detained by something that made him sufficiently angry to hold his attention.

  When the man and woman in the white shirts come out of Anita and Rune’s house almost an hour later, they find that their little white car with the council logo has been boxed into the little cul-de-sac by a large trailer. A trailer that someone, while they were inside the house, must have parked exactly so it blocks the entire road behind them. One could almost think it had been done on purpose.

  The woman looks genuinely puzzled. But the man in the white shirt immediately walks up to Ove.

  “Have you done this?”

  Ove crosses his arms and looks at him coldly.


  The man in the white shirt smiles in a superior manner. The way men in white shirts, who are used to always having things their own way, smile when someone tries to disagree with them.

  “Move it at once.”

  “I don’t think so,” says Ove.

  The man in the white shirt sighs, as if the threatening statement he makes after that were directed at a child.

  “Move the trailer, Ove. Or I’ll call the police.”

  Ove shakes his head nonchalantly, pointing at the sign farther down the road.

  “Motor vehicles prohibited inside the residential area. It says so clearly on the sign.”

  “Don’t you have anything better to do than standing out here pretending to be the foreman?” groans the man in the white shirt.

  “There was nothing good on TV,” says Ove.

  And that’s when there’s a little twitch at the temple of the man in the white shirt. As if his mask has slipped a little, just a fraction. He looks at the trailer, his boxed-in Škoda, the sign, Ove standing in front of him with his arms crossed. The man seems to consider for an instant whether he might try to force Ove by violence, but he realizes in another instant that this would very likely be an extremely bad idea.

  “This was very silly of you, Ove. This was very, very silly,” he hisses finally.

  And his blue eyes, for the first time, are filled with genuine fury. Ove’s face does not betray the slightest emotion. The man in the white shirt walks away, up towards the garages and the main road, with the sort of steps that make it clear that this will not be the end of this story.

  The woman with the papers hurries off after him.

  One might have expected Ove to watch them with a look of triumph in his eyes. He would probably have expected this himself, in fact. But instead he just looks sad and tired. As if he hasn’t slept in months. As if he hardly has the strength to keep his arms up any longer. He lets his hands glide into his pockets and goes back home. But no sooner has he closed the door than someone starts banging on it again.

  “They’re going to take Rune away from Anita,” says Parvaneh urgently, snatching the front door open before Ove has even reached the handle.

  “Pah,” Ove snorts tiredly.

  The resignation in his voice clearly takes both Parvaneh and Anita, who’s standing behind her, by surprise. Maybe it also surprises Ove. He inhales quickly through his nose. Looks at Anita. She’s grayer and more sunken than ever; her eyes are red, swollen.

  “They say they’ll come and pick him up this week, and that I can’t manage to take care of him myself,” she says, in a voice so fragile that it hardly manages to get past her lips.

  “We have to do something!” cries Parvaneh, grabbing him.

  Ove snatches his arm back and avoids her eyes.

  “Pah! They won’t come to get him for years and years. This’ll go to appeal and then it’ll go through all the bureaucratic shit,” says Ove.

  He tries to sound more convinced and sure of himself than he actually feels. But he doesn’t have the strength to care about how he’s coming across. He just wants them to leave.

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” roars Parvaneh.

  “You’re the one who doesn’t know what you’re talking about—you’ve never had anything to do with the county council, you don’t know what it’s like fighting them,” he answers in a monotone voice, his shoulders slumped.

  “But you have to talk . . .” she begins to say in a faltering voice. It’s as if all the energy in Ove’s body is draining out of him even as he stands there.

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