Reviewed by Emma Naismith in SBR 2017:2
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Jonas has reached the end of his doctoral studies in literature, but his viva falls short of the mark. A farcical fall from his chair after the session, followed by a walk home during which he strips off his clothing layer by layer, sets the tone for this entertaining misadventure. Jonas realises his suit, which he originally adopted to mock his fellow researchers’ style but which later became part of the identity he created for himself as an ‘academic’, means he is ‘an academic by physiology but not by title’. Jonas both longs to be part of the core of the academic world, and, at the same time, scorns that inner circle.
The disappointing climax of Jonas’ academic career, aggravated by a split from his partner Lisa and losing his flat, triggers a soul-searching, comic adventure in which he obsesses over his former supervisor, role model and idol, Stefan Larsson. He gradually perceives cracks in the façade of this demigod, whose complete lack of interest in Jonas – if not outright dislike of him – leads to Jonas’ locking Stefan in the library’s closed stacks on the promise of a look at an original letter from Foucault, to confront him on his role in Jonas’ failed thesis.
Many of Jonas’ ruminations revolve around his identity as an academic, the various points in his life when he made a decision to ‘become somebody’, and questions such as what games need to be played, which literary greats from the canon should be mentioned, and which theories his doctorate should emulate.
This story entertains, sucks the reader in, while every so often strata of emotion surface like layers of chalk in a cliff face. The first-person narrator means you are immersed in Jonas’ world: a world of smells and taste and intimacy. Martin Engberg uses all the senses to bring this world close enough to bite. His observations of other characters – ‘there was a streak of lead in his glance that one day would find its way into his thoughts and poison them, drive them mad’ – draw the reader’s thoughts beyond the pages, and the characterisations of Jonas’ family are tender and affectionate. Engberg cleverly uses pared-back language, the odd cliché and a simple narrative to explore literary form and originality, and it is in particular his use of simple language in unexpected ways that creates depth in the story.
Jonas’ tug-of-war between belonging and not belonging explores the themes of knowledge, failure, identity and the stresses of academia. In Jonas’ world there is huge pressure to produce something original, while at the same time emulating the greats who have gone before. This is something Jonas both embraces and abhors, without ever quite managing it himself. He immerses himself in the academic world by working at the library, observing in minute detail the habits and clothing of academics and copying them. A degree of frustration builds as Jonas’ musings edge onto teenage angst, but the pace of the book and the comedy, layered with emotion, keep the reader onside.
This book was well received in Sweden. The reviewer at the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter wrote, ‘I am genuinely entertained throughout a novel that achieves a good balance between humour, lightness and a compassionate narrative,’ while Svenska Dagbladet calls it original and ‘in fact, quite outstanding’. Its handling of universal themes such as failure and identity and its perceptive portrayal of modern life would no doubt appeal to English-speaking readers.