A man called ove a novel, p.7
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       A Man Called Ove: A Novel, p.7

           Fredrik Backman
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  They say the brain functions quicker while it’s falling. As if the sudden explosion of kinetic energy forces the mental faculties to accelerate until the perception of the exterior world goes into slow motion.

  So Ove had time to think of many different things.

  Mainly radiators.

  Because there are right and wrong ways of doing things, as we all know. And even though it was many years ago and Ove could no longer remember exactly what solution he’d considered to be the right one in the argument about which central heating system should be adopted by the Residents’ Association, he did remember very clearly that Rune’s approach to it had been wrong.

  But it wasn’t just the central heating system. Rune and Ove had known one another for almost forty years, and they had been at loggerheads for at least thirty-seven of them.

  Ove could not in all honesty remember how it all started. It wasn’t the sort of dispute where you did remember. It was more an argument where the little disagreements had ended up so entangled that every new word was treacherously booby-trapped, and in the end it wasn’t possible to open one’s mouth at all without setting off at least four unexploded mines from earlier conflicts. It was the sort of argument that had just run, and run, and run. Until one day it just ran out.

  It wasn’t really about cars, properly speaking. But Ove drove a Saab, after all. And Rune drove a Volvo. Anyone could have seen it wouldn’t work out in the long run. In the beginning, though, they had been friends. Or, at least, friends to the extent that men like Ove and Rune were capable of being friends. Mostly for the sake of their wives, obviously. All four of them had moved into the area at the same time, and Sonja and Anita became instant best friends as only women married to men like Ove and Rune can be.

  Ove recalled that he had at least not disliked Rune in those early years, as far as he could remember. They were the ones who set up the Residents’ Association, Ove as chairman and Rune as assistant chairman. They had stuck together when the council wanted to cut down the forest behind Ove’s and Rune’s houses in order to build even more houses. Of course, the council claimed that those construction plans had been there for years before Rune and Ove moved into their houses, but one did not get far with Rune and Ove using that sort of argumentation. “It’s war, you bastards!” Rune had roared at them down the telephone line. And it truly was: endless appeals and writs and petitions and letters to newspapers. A year and a half later the council gave up and started building somewhere else instead.

  That evening Rune and Ove had drunk a glass of whiskey each on Rune’s patio. They didn’t seem overly happy about winning, their wives pointed out. Both men were rather disappointed that the council had given up so quickly. These eighteen months had been some of the most enjoyable of their lives.

  “Is no one prepared to fight for their principles anymore?” Rune had wondered.

  “Not a damn one,” Ove had answered.

  And then they said a toast to unworthy enemies.

  That was long before the coup d’état in the Residents’ Association, of course. And before Rune bought a BMW.

  Idiot, thought Ove on that day, and also today, all these years after. And every day in between, actually. “How the heck are you supposed to have a reasonable conversation with someone who buys a BMW?” Ove used to ask Sonja when she wondered why the two men could not have a reasonable conversation anymore. And at that point Sonja used to find no other course but to roll her eyes while muttering, “You’re hopeless.”

  Ove wasn’t hopeless, in his own view. He just had a sense of there needing to be a bit of order in the greater scheme of things. He felt one should not go through life as if everything was exchangeable. As if loyalty was worthless. Nowadays people changed their stuff so often that any expertise in how to make things last was becoming superfluous. Quality: no one cared about that anymore. Not Rune or the other neighbors and not those managers in the place where Ove worked. Now everything had to be computerized, as if one couldn’t build a house until some consultant in a too-small shirt figured out how to open a laptop. As if that was how they built the Colosseum and the pyramids of Giza. Christ, they’d managed to build the Eiffel Tower in 1889, but nowadays one couldn’t come up with the bloody drawings for a one-story house without taking a break for someone to run off and recharge their cell phone.

  This was a world where one became outdated before one’s time was up. An entire country standing up and applauding the fact that no one was capable of doing anything properly anymore. The unreserved celebration of mediocrity.

  No one could change tires. Install a dimmer switch. Lay some tiles. Plaster a wall. File their own taxes. These were all forms of knowledge that had lost their relevance, and the sorts of things Ove had once spoken of with Rune. And then Rune went and bought a BMW.

  Was a person hopeless because he believed there should be some limits? Ove didn’t think so.

  And yes, he didn’t exactly remember how that argument with Rune had started. But it had continued. It had been about radiators and central heating systems and parking slots and trees that had to be felled and snow clearance and lawn mowers and rat poison in Rune’s pond. For more than thirty-five years they had paced about on their identical patios behind their identical houses, while throwing meaningful glares over the fence. And then one day about a year ago it all came to an end. Rune became ill. Never came out of the house anymore. Ove didn’t even know if he still had the BMW.

  And there was a part of him that missed that bloody old sod.

  So, as they say, the brain functions quicker when it’s falling. Like thinking thousands of thoughts in a fraction of a second. In other words, Ove has a good deal of time to think after he’s kicked the stool over and fallen and landed on the floor with a lot of angry thrashing. He lies there, on his back, looking up for what seems like half an eternity at the hook still up on the ceiling. Then, in shock, he stares at the rope, which has snapped into two long stumps.

  This society, thinks Ove. Can’t they even manufacture rope anymore? He swears profusely while he furiously tries to untangle his legs. How can one fail to manufacture rope, for Christ’s sake? How can you get rope wrong?

  No, there’s no quality anymore, Ove decides. He stands up, brushes himself down, peers around the room and ground floor of his row house. Feels his cheeks burning; he’s not quite sure if it’s because of anger or shame.

  He looks at the window and the drawn curtains, as if concerned that someone may have seen him.

  Isn’t that bloody typical, he thinks. You can’t even kill yourself in a sensible way anymore. He picks up the snapped rope and throws it in the kitchen wastebasket. Folds up the plastic sheeting and puts it in the IKEA bags. Puts back the hammer-action drill and the drill bits in their cases, then goes out and puts everything back in the shed.

  He stands out there for a few minutes and thinks about how Sonja always used to nag at him to tidy the place up. He always refused, knowing that any new space would immediately be an excuse to go out and buy more useless stuff with which to fill it. And now it’s too late for tidying, he confirms. Now there’s no longer anyone who wants to go out and buy useless stuff. Now the tidying would just result in a lot of empty gaps. And Ove hates empty gaps.

  He goes to the workbench, picks up an adjustable wrench and a little plastic watering can. He walks out, locks the shed, and tugs at the door handle three times. Then goes down the little pathway between the houses, turns off by the last mailbox, and rings a doorbell. Anita opens the door. Ove looks at her without a word. Sees Rune sitting there in his wheelchair, vacantly staring out of the window. It seems that’s all he’s done these last few years.

  “Where have you got the radiators, then?” mutters Ove.

  Anita smiles a surprised little smile and nods with equally mixed eagerness and confusion.

  “Oh, Ove, that’s dreadfully kind of you, if it’s not too much trou—”

  Ove steps
into the hall without letting her finish what she’s saying, or removing his shoes.

  “Yeah, yeah, this crappy day is already ruined anyway.”



  A week after his eighteenth birthday, Ove passed his driving test, responded to an advertisement, and walked fifteen miles to buy his first own car: a blue Saab 93. He sold his dad’s old Saab 92 to pay for it. It was only marginally newer, admittedly, and quite a run-down Saab 93 at that, but a man was not a proper man until he had bought his own car, felt Ove. And so it was.

  It was a time of change in the country. People moved and found new jobs and bought televisions, and the newspapers started talking about a “middle class.” Ove didn’t quite know what this was, but he was well aware that he was not a part of it. The middle classes moved into new housing developments with straight walls and carefully trimmed lawns, and it soon grew clear to Ove that his parental home stood in the way of progress. And if there was anything this middle class was not enamored of, it was whatever stood in the way of progress.

  Ove received several letters from the council about what was called “the redrawing of municipal boundaries.” He didn’t quite understand the content of these letters, but he understood that his parental home did not fit among the new-built houses on the street. The council notified him of their intention to force him to sell the land to them so the house could be demolished and another built in its place.

  Ove wasn’t sure what it was that made him refuse. Maybe because he didn’t like the tone of that letter from the council. Or because the house was all he had left of his family.

  Whatever the case, he parked his first very own car in the garden that evening and sat in the driver’s seat for several hours, gazing at the house. It was, to be blunt, decrepit. His father’s specialty had been machines, not building, and Ove was not much better himself. These days he used only the kitchen and the little room leading off it, while the entire second floor was slowly being turned into a recreational stamping ground for mice. He watched the house from the car, as if hoping that it might start repairing itself if he waited patiently enough. It lay exactly on the boundary between two municipal authorities, on a line on the map that would now be moved one way or the other. It was the remnant of an extinguished little village at the edge of the forest, next to the shining residential development into which people wearing suits had now moved with their families.

  The suits didn’t like the lonely youth in the house due for demolition at the end of the street. The children were not allowed to play around Ove’s house. Suits preferred to live in the vicinity of other suits, Ove had come to understand. He had nothing against that, of course—but they were the ones who had moved into his neighborhood, not the other way around.

  And so, filled with a kind of strange defiance that made Ove’s heart beat a little faster for the first time in years, he decided not to sell his house to the council. He decided to do the opposite. Repair it.

  Of course, he had no idea of how to do it. He didn’t know a dovetail joint from a pot of potatoes. Realizing that his new working hours left him entirely free in the daytime, he went to a nearby construction site and applied for a job. He imagined this must be the best possible place to learn about building and he didn’t need much sleep anyway. The only thing they could offer him was a laboring job, said the foreman. Ove took it.

  So he spent his nights picking up litter on the line heading south out of town; then, after three hours of sleep, he used what time remained to dart up and down the scaffolding, listening to the men in hard hats talking about construction techniques. One day a week he was free, and then he dragged sacks of cement and wooden beams back and forth for eighteen hours at a stretch, perspiring and lonely, demolishing and rebuilding the only thing his parents had left him apart from the Saab and his father’s wristwatch. Ove’s muscles grew and he was a fast learner.

  The foreman at the building site took a liking to the hard-working youth, and one Friday afternoon took Ove to the pile of discarded planks, made-to-measure timber that had cracked and was due for burning.

  “If I happen to look the other way and something you need goes walking, I’ll assume you’ve burned it,” said the foreman and walked off.

  Once the rumors of his house-building had spread among his older colleagues, one or other of them occasionally asked Ove about it. When he damaged the wall in the living room, a wiry colleague with wonky front teeth, after spending twenty minutes telling Ove what an idiot he was for not knowing better from the start, taught him how to calculate the load-bearing parameters. When he laid the floor in the kitchen, a more heavy-built colleague with a missing little finger on one hand, after calling him a bonehead three dozen times, showed him how to take proper measurements.

  One afternoon, as he was about to head home at the end of his shift, Ove found a little toolbox full of used tools by his clothes. It came with a note that simply read: “To the puppy.”

  Slowly, the house took shape. Screw by screw and floorboard by floorboard. No one saw it, of course, but there was no need for anyone to see it. A job well done is a reward in its own right, as his father always used to say.

  He kept out of the way of his neighbors as much as he could. He knew they didn’t like him and he saw no reason to give them further ammunition. The only exception was an elderly man and his wife who lived next door to Ove. This man was the only one on their whole street who did not wear a tie.

  Ove had religiously fed the birds every other day since his father died. He only forgot to do it one morning. When the following morning he came out to compensate for his omission, he almost collided headfirst into the older man by the fence under the bird-table. His neighbor gave him an insulted glance; he had birdseed in his hands. They did not say anything to one another. Ove merely nodded and the older man gave him a little nod back. Ove went back into his house and from that time on made sure he kept to his own days.

  They never spoke to one another. But one morning when the older man stepped onto his front step, Ove was painting his fence. And when he was done with that, he also painted the other side of the fence. The older man didn’t say anything about it, but when Ove went past his kitchen window in the evening they nodded at one another. And the next day there was a home-baked apple pie on Ove’s front step. Ove had not eaten homemade apple pie since his mother died.

  Ove received more letters from the council. They became increasingly threatening in their tone and displeased that he still hadn’t contacted them about the sale of his property. In the end he started throwing the letters away without even opening them. If they wanted his father’s house they could come here and try to take it, the same way Tom had tried to take that wallet from him all those years ago.

  A few mornings later Ove walked past the neighbor’s house and saw the elderly man feeding the birds in the company of a little boy. A grandchild of his, Ove realized. He watched them surreptitiously through the bedroom window. The way the older man and the boy spoke in low voices with each other, as if they were sharing some great secret. It reminded him of something.

  That night he had his supper in the Saab.

  A few weeks later, Ove drove home the last nail in his house, and when the sun rose over the horizon he stood in the garden with his hands shoved into the pockets of his navy trousers, proudly surveying his work.

  He’d discovered that he liked houses. Maybe mostly because they were understandable. They could be calculated and drawn on paper. They did not leak if they were made watertight; they did not collapse if they were properly supported. Houses were fair, they gave you what you deserved. Which, unfortunately, was more than one could say about people.

  And so the days went by. Ove went to work and came home and had sausages and spuds. He never felt alone despite his lack of company. Then one Sunday, as Ove was moving some planks, a jovial man with a round face and an ill-fitting suit turned up at his gate. The sweat ran from his forehead
and he asked Ove if there might be a glass of water of the cold variety going spare. Ove saw no reason to deny him this, and while the man drank it by his gate, some small talk passed between them. Or rather, it was mostly the man with the round face who did the talking. It turned out that he was very interested in houses. Apparently he was in the midst of doing up his own house in another part of town. And somehow the man with the round face managed to invite himself into Ove’s kitchen for a cup of coffee. Obviously, Ove was not used to this kind of pushy behavior, but after an hour-long conversation about house-building, he was prepared to admit to himself that it wasn’t so unpleasant having a bit of company in the kitchen for a change.

  Just before the man left he asked in passing about Ove’s house insurance. Ove answered candidly that he’d never given it much thought. His father had not been very interested in insurance policies.

  The jovial man with the round face was filled with consternation, and he explained to Ove that it would be a veritable catastrophe for him if something happened to the house. After listening carefully to his many admonishments, Ove felt bound to agree with him. He had never given much thought to it until then. Which made him feel rather stupid now.

  The man then asked if he might use the telephone; Ove said that would be fine. It turned out that his guest, grateful for a stranger’s hospitality on a hot summer’s day, had found a way of repaying his kindness. For it transpired that he actually worked for an insurance company, and was able to pull some strings to arrange an excellent quotation for Ove.

  Ove was skeptical at first. He asked again about the man’s credentials, which he was happy to reiterate. He then spent a considerable amount of time negotiating a better price.

  “You’re a tough businessman,” said the man with the round face with a laugh. Ove felt surprisingly proud when he heard this—“a tough businessman.” The man then glanced at his watch, thanked Ove, and said he’d best be on his way. As he left he gave Ove a piece of paper with his telephone number and said that he’d very much like to come by another day and have some more coffee and talk some more about house renovation. This was the first time anyone had ever expressed a wish to be Ove’s friend.

  Ove paid the man with the round face the full year’s premium in cash. They shook hands.

  The man with the round face never contacted him again. Ove tried to call him on one occasion but no one answered. He felt a quick stab of disappointment but decided not to think about it again. At least when salesmen called from other insurance companies he was able to say without any bad conscience that he was already insured. And that was something.

  Ove continued avoiding his neighbors. He didn’t want any problems with them. But unfortunately the problems seemed to have decided to seek out Ove instead. A few weeks after his house repairs were finished, one of his suited neighbors was burgled. It was the second burglary in the area in a relatively short period. The suits got together early next morning to deliberate on that young rascal in the condemned house, who must have had something to do with it. They knew very well “where he’d got the money for all that renovation.” In the evening someone stuck a note under Ove’s door, on which was written: “Clear off if you know what’s good for you!” The night after that a stone was thrown through his window. Ove picked up the stone and changed the glass in the window. He never confronted the suits. Saw no purpose in it. But he wasn’t going to move either.

  Early the next morning he was woken by the smell of smoke.

  He was out of his bed in an instant; the first thing that came into his head was that whoever had thrown that stone had apparently not finished yet. On his way down the stairs he instinctively grabbed a hammer. Not that Ove had ever been a violent man. But you could never be sure, he decided.

  He was wearing only his underpants when he stepped onto the front veranda. All that lugging of construction materials in the last months had turned Ove into an impressively muscular young man without him even noticing. His bare upper body and the hammer swinging in his clenched right fist made the group gathered in the street momentarily take their eyes off the fire, and instinctively take a step back.

  And that was when Ove realized that it was not his house that was burning, but his neighbor’s.

  The suits stood in the street, staring like deer into headlights. The elderly man emerged out of the smoke, his wife leaning on his arm. She was coughing terribly. When the elderly man handed her over to one of the suits’ wives, and then turned back towards the fire, several of the suits cried out to him, telling him to leave it. “It’s too late! Wait for the fire brigade!” they roared. The elderly man didn’t listen. Burning material fell over the threshold as he tried to step inside into a sea of fire.

  Ove stood in the face of the wind by his gate and saw how scattered glowing balls had already set the dry grass alight between his house and the neighbor’s. For a few long-drawn-out seconds he evaluated the situation as best he could: the fire would be all over his house in a few minutes if he didn’t charge off to get the water hose at once. He saw the elderly man trying to push his way past an overturned bookcase on his way into the house. The suits shouted his name and tried to make him stop, but the elderly man’s wife was screaming out another name.

  Their grandchild.

  Ove rocked on his heels as he watched the embers stealing their way through the grass. In all honesty he was probably not thinking so much about what he wanted to do, but about what his father would have done. And as soon as that thought had taken root there was not much choice about it.

  He muttered, irritated, looking at his house a last time, instinctively calculating to himself how many hours it had taken to build it. And then he ran towards the fire.

  The house was so filled with thick, sticky smoke that it was like being struck in the face with a shovel. The elderly man struggled to move the fallen bookcase, which was blocking a door. Ove threw it aside as if it were made of paper and cleared a way up the stairs. By the time they emerged into the light of dawn, the elderly man was carrying the boy in his soot-covered arms. Ove had long, bleeding grazes across his chest and arms.

  The bystanders just ran around panicking, screaming. The air was pierced by sirens. Uniformed firemen surrounded them.

  Still wearing only his underpants and with aching lungs, Ove saw the first flames climbing his own house. He charged across the lawn but was immediately stopped by a group of firemen. They were everywhere, all of a sudden.

  Refused to let him through.

  A man in a white shirt, some sort of chief fireman as Ove understood it, stood before him with his legs wide apart and explained that they couldn’t let him try to extinguish the fire in his own house. It was much too dangerous. Unfortunately, the white shirt explained after that, the fire brigade could not put it out either until they had the appropriate permissions from the authorities.

  It turned out that because Ove’s house now lay exactly on the municipal boundary, clearance from the command center was required on the shortwave radio before they could get to work. Permission had to be sought, papers had to be stamped.

  “Rules are rules,” the man in the white shirt explained in a monotone voice, when Ove protested.

  Ove tore himself free and ran in fury towards the water hose. But it was futile—by the time the firemen got the all-clear signal, the house was already engulfed by fire.

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