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Theodor Kallifatides, Vänner och älskare (Friends and Lovers)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789100120429

Reviewed by Eivor Martinus in SBR 2009:1

I found myself exclaiming: ‘Oh yes’ after finishing this delightful book. It is not often that you feel uplifted when reading a contemporary novel but Kallifatides carefully brings his readers into his most intimate spheres and keeps his balance beautifully through the highs and lows of close friendship and love and sublime devotion. Those who state that writers should refrain from writing in another language than their mother tongue should read this book. I can’t imagine any Swedish-born writer improving on this beautifully honed style. Kallifatides, who came to Sweden from Greece more than forty years ago, has captured exactly the right tone and he never falters in his careful depiction of deep human emotions. It would have been so easy to adopt a sentimental or pretentious tone but Kallifatides avoids that and instead introduces a wry sense of humour served with philosophical musings. The book is divided into five parts, each concentrating on a specific aspect of love or friendship. The main character, Georg, is a middle-aged man, Director of ABF (Workers’ Educational Association). His job is to organise literary evenings and other cultural events and he is helped by his Czech colleague, Milan, who is also his best friend.They eat out after work and they talk candidly about their worries and loves. Georg’s wife of thirty years has had a serious haemorrhage and is dying in hospital at the beginning of the novel. Milan listens to Georg and comforts him, but when Georg claims that the most important thing in a relationship is talking to one another, Milan disagrees and contradicts him: ‘I don’t think it is always good to talk to one another. I don’t believe in the ethics of confession.’ In the second part of the novel Georg’s absolute belief in his wife Marja is shattered when he discovers a tin box containing a letter addressed to a mysterious man who had obviously been her lover for quite some time. The illusion of their happy marriage and her fidelity is badly damaged and the shocking news makes room for vengeful bitterness. Milan admits that he saw Marja and her lover together once and Georg is outraged at first and demands to know why Milan did not tell him.The sadness and the huge disappointment at having been deceived by his wife leaves Georg with an obsession to find Marja’s lover. ‘There was a cordial heartlessness between them which was very restful.’ The two men continue to meet and support each other and on one occasion Milan confesses that he was tortured in his native Czechoslovakia and that he is therefore unable to have sexual relationships. Georg has a massive heart attack while giving a talk. He is saved by a young woman who gives him mouthto-mouth resuscitation.The woman who saves his life was first introduced in the opening chapter as she came walking down a narrow, sweeping staircase with two bottles of wine in her right hand and a tray with glasses in her left hand. At the time Georg felt he had to look away so as not to bring her bad luck. The third part begins with Georg recovering in hospital. An unknown man visits him and admits that it was he who was Marja’s lover for several years. He even left his wife and children for Marja, and although Marja had agreed to meet him at the main train station from where they were going to make their escape, she changed her mind at the last minute and never turned up. The two men end up comparing notes about Marja and gradually Georg realises that he feels great sympathy for this man whom he ought to hate. He learns that he is a well-known cellist and that all his family perished in Dachau. In the end the two men part as friends. The fourth part sees Georg looking up the girl who saved his life. She is called Fabia after Ovid’s muse and she is originally from Romania. In fact, most characters in this novel except for Georg, come from some other country in Europe and many of them have suffered great losses or hardships due to war or fascist regimes. Fabia, whose father was tortured to death in Romania, is impatient with whingeing Swedes who do not realise how fortunate they are: ‘I don’t know of any other country that has achieved so much when it comes to equality, freedom of speech and social welfare’, she tells Georg. The last part of the novel describes a journey to Fabia’s country of birth. They travel by car through Europe, exploring places where they have been with their former partners. Georg notices how Fabia blossoms when speaking her own language and he wonders:‘Can a person long so much for her own language?’ Fabia tells him that true exile is living without love. ‘He repeated the words again and again.True exile is living without love.’ Kallifatides has given us an affectionate portrait of people who are not afraid of opening their hearts. It is a rare and tender novel.

Also by Theodor Kallifatides

Other reviews by Eivor Martinus

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