Rabén & Sjögren, 2010. ISBN: 9789129673005
Reviewed by Birgitta Thompson in SBR 2011:1
Mikael Niemi, who shot to fame ten years ago with his widely acclaimed Populärmusik från Vittula (Popular Music, 2003), has now written a novel for young people in the wake of several worldwide school massacres carried out by fellow students, notably in Finland, Germany and the USA. The title inevitably evokes associations with A Clockwork Orange. The nameless teenage narrator and protagonist decides he is a nobody who would rather be hated and despised than remain a grey nonentity among his peers. After being publicly humiliated when he declared his love for the most beautiful girl in the school and was rejected, he starts a campaign to show the world who he really is. He dresses up in his mother’s super-ugly old overall, and gets himself noticed and talked about. He writes subversive poetry about shooting and bombing that he displays anonymously on the school notice-board as well as in bold graffiti on the front wall of the school, enjoying the stir it causes. He makes people – the head-teacher, his fellow pupils, the local journalist – react in different ways; his aim is to wake them up, to wake up their feelings, to make them live. When his mother, a hospital nurse, finds his poems in their secure hiding-place she is so shocked that she burns them and makes an appointment for her son at a psychiatric clinic. The danger, however, does not come from him but from Pålle, who tries to befriend him, after our narrator has helped him to defend himself against a gang of bullies. Typically, Pålle takes the anonymous messages and slogans all over the school literally; to the narrator’s disquiet he talks at length about how easy it is to manufacture a bomb – it might already have been planted somewhere in the school. The panic grows when Pålle makes a bomb threat by telephone. In the woods the two boys use oranges for target practice using a real handgun that Pålle has borrowed from his father, who has military connections. He also produces a sub-machine gun, lays plans to use both weapons in a classroom attack, and gives detailed orders to his reluctant mate how they are to proceed together. In spite of his own fantasies about shootings and killings in his poems – ‘the pen is my gun’ – the narrator is convinced that Pålle must be stopped. As the novel draws towards its tragic conclusion, the narrator instinctively feels that there is something odd about the other boy who tries to get close to him, even uncomfortably so. It gradually becomes clear that Pålle is deeply disturbed as a result of severe mental and physical abuse at the hands of his parents. Pretty strong stuff that would go down well with tough, young revolutionary yobbos. There are, however, plenty of more cheerful and positive aspects of the novel that young readers will be able to identify with. Like Popular Music, it is full of humour, often black, in its moving depiction of the thoughts and feelings of a sensitive and gifted but rather lonely teenager and his attempts to get his life together in a hostile, boring and indifferent world. Above all, the novel is written in masterly fashion, in parallel with the narrator’s own surprisingly mature thoughts about writing and expressing himself among the endless possibilities that language offers. He likens it to a paint-box that nobody uses properly: grey dominates when it should be possible to create rainbows. After all his trials and tribulations, he emerges stronger and more mature. He finally gets close to the green-eyed punk girl with black spikey hair, the only one who saw through him and understood what he was trying to achieve. After their first kiss his whole being opens up, ‘like an orange, sun-yellow and juicy’ and no longer shot to shreds; he realizes that it is all there inside him: his poems and his life which has barely begun. He no longer aspires to be a doctor: he is going to be a writer. Words are there to be used and played around with. Full of timeless exuberance in spite of its dark undertones, this novel for young people deserves to be read more widely than in the Swedish language area alone.