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Svindlarprästen Aleksander Motturi, Svindlarprästen (The Swindler Priest)

Norstedts,  2012.

Reviewed by Željka Černok in SBR 2013:1

Review Section: Faction

‘I suppose I shall have to live with your tragic and self-centred ego for the rest of my life’ – this is how the first letter in the book starts, written by a father to his son. The son is the author of the book, and the father is John Peter Daniels, a notorious swindler. Daniels became known in Sweden as the ‘Swindler Priest’, because he almost managed to cheat Swedish church officials out of enormous amounts of money and was tried for it in the mid-1980s. 

In narrative flashbacks, based on court documents and letters, Motturi paints a fascinating picture of a conman who has bluffed his way through life – a man who reinvented himself at every opportunity, changed names, converted, constantly settling at different places all over the world and leaving a trail of wives and children behind. He misled every likely victim, i.e. practically everyone who became intrigued by his lavish lifestyle  and was wealthy and greedy enough to invest in his shady deals. 

The father is fascinating and so mysterious that when, at the beginning of the book, the son gets the news that he died in a prison in India, he almost cannot believe it. This is a man who has disappeared many times before, always after promising he would never do it again, and usually re-appearing years later with a new name and a new passport. This is the father who sent fantastic presents to his children and paid for them to visit him in exotic locations, but took no notice when his family was evicted from their flat. His letters give him scope to display his mood swings, self-righteousness and self-pity. He would curse his son in one letter and claim eternal love in another. One day he insists that he wants to live with God and without material possessions, the next day he asks his son to send him a pen to write his memoirs with – ‘not a ball-point pen though, but a proper, expensive one.’ 

The author is not trying to find excuses for his father. He is struggling to explain his father’s actions even to himself, struggling to understand him, to forgive him. But however hard the son and the reader try to make sense of it all, lots of unanswered questions remain. The style is rich and the pictures he paints feel real – the father´s escapades in India, Africa, Canada and Europe, the people he associated with, the author´s many brothers and sisters and their ways of dealing with this ever-disappearing father and notoriously colourful character. His neighbours often admired him, despite known oddities: he once wrote a letter from prison to the Queen, complaining in great detail about the food and asking her (not her husband, whom he considered a  bit of a cheapskate) to send him leftovers from the royal meals. In one interview the author says that he saw himself as his father´s secretary, but a secretary who wrote the whole story down in a way his father would not approve of. 

Don´t be put off by the prologue which is written in a florid style and really should have been left out. Just dive right into it and try to make sense of this man. Even as a fictional character he would be fascinating. But he was real. 

Other reviews by Željka Černok

Other reviews in SBR 2013:1

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