My rating: 3 stars
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden took me quite a while to finish, although it is not a particularly long book. Halfway through, reading it became more of a chore and, therefore, I only managed to go through a couple of pages each time. Jonas Jonasson’s chief aim must have been to satirise political ideas and historical events, the characters being just a means to an end. It’s obvious that the author used this story to criticise racism, the apartheid, social inequality and shadowy international relations in an attempted humorous way. The novel is rather funny in parts, but sometimes it tries too hard to be so.
One essential thing to know about this book is that it’s completely bonkers. The plot develops through two distinctive strands set in two different continents, but they end up converging in Sweden, following a series of implausible events. The first significant character to be introduced is Nombeko Mayeki, a latrine emptier in Soweto, South Africa. She had a hard life. Her mother died when she was 10 years old and she never knew her father. After a series of coincidences, she became the manager of latrine emptying at sector B.
Having been born in the early 1960s, she never went to school, as South African politicians back then saw no reason for black children to do so. However, she was really good at calculations and was eager to learn to read. She asked a fellow latrine emptier, Thabo, who had done a lot of travelling and had a secret stash of diamonds, to teach her. Since he ended up being murdered by two women from Mozambique, Nombeko took the opportunity to stay with the diamonds for herself and, after being fired, headed to Johannesburg. Her foray into the city was shorter than she had anticipated, though. Soon after her arrival, she was run over by a drunk driver – Mr van der Westhuizen.
“But it is not and never has been easy to drive a car with a litre of brandy in one’s body. The engineer didn’t make it farther than the next intersection before he and the Opel drifted onto the pavement and – shit! – wasn’t he running over a Kaffir?”
Although the driver was drunk, Nombeko was forced to assume part of the responsibility for the accident. She had to accept to be his servant as a way to pay for the damages she had apparently caused in his car. Mr van der Westhuizen was an engineer working on a nuclear weapons program and that was to be the beginning of a never-ending succession of problems for Nombeko.
The second strand of this novel focuses at first on Ingmar Qvist from Sweden. He spent part of his life trying to shake the King’s hand after missing the opportunity to do so when he was a child. When he finally met the King again, the encounter didn’t go as he expected. Afterwards, his plans assumed a more republican and long-term nature, since they involved his descendants.
The narrative spans an extensive period of time and many events take place throughout the book. In fact, it takes too long for the story to come to a resolution. New and too convenient occurrences keep on being added, which only makes the plot become increasingly more absurd. Despite we being told much about what happened throughout the character’s lives, they still feel distant and to an extent unreal.
The book is at its best when it approaches serious issues with an ironic tone. Part of the story is set during the apartheid, thus there are various references to cases of racism and exclusion, but also to how Nelson Mandela was at first perceived as a terrorist and not as the fighter for equality that he truly was. The witty and humorous views on political and economic realities are not limited to South Africa. There are also mentions of events related with Angola, Mozambique, the Soviet Union, Israel, the Vietnam war, communism and both Swedish politics and monarchy.
However, in various occasions, it felt like the only purpose of this novel was to introduce completely crazy situations. The same issues could have been raised in a much more compelling and even funny way. The plot needn’t have to be so improbable. Jonas Jonasson did manage to bring a smile to my face once in a while, but I was never eager to return to this book.