About two years ago, when the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) started making waves in America, there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of scores of folks: Socialism. And you know what was even scarier? A place that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the ACA: Sweden. It sent shivers up people’s spines and became a rallying cry for everything that was going to hell in a handbasket in the United States. #eeeeekpleasenotsweden had the potential to be the hashtag heard around the world. “Sweden” became a synonym for “Socialism” (never mind that, strictly speaking, Sweden is not a Socialist country) and some people’s obsession with the country nearly overshadowed the fact that some people just wanted to talk more about healthcare on a broader level without going into policy or making assertions about what works or what doesn’t.
Let’s call it the Art of Making Something Seem Like It’s About Something Else, or Missing the Point Entirely. In other words, “I’m not talking about A nor B (even though everyone else is discussing A and B)—I want to discuss something entirely different: C.”
Ya sure, ya betcha?
There seems to be something about Sweden because this C-level discussion is something that Swedish author Jonas Jonasson uses to perfection in his second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. Billed as the “uproariously funny” follow-up to the author’s debut, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, this book does, in fact, read much like a comedy. Rarely does a book coax guffaws from me, but this one did. But I wonder if I sat down with Jonasson and said, “Hey, thanks for making me laugh!” if he would actually respond with “That wasn’t exactly my intent.”
The “A topic” is that the book is a comical global romp in which Mr. Bean would feel right at home. On the surface, a man who gets bitten in half by a hippopotamus, an “illiterate” who has more brains than her bosses, and a boy who shares the same name as his twin brother find themselves in farcical situations. But taken with the facts and back stories behind them—the eaten man is a English missionary, the “illiterate” is a young girl from the slums of Soweto, and the twin has literally been hidden from the world and given his brother’s name as a means to do so—the reader realizes that there is a sick kind of humor in the absurdity of tragic circumstances.
Nombeko, born in Soweto in 1961, really is an “illiterate,” but it turns out that the joke is on everyone else because her brains surpass everyone she encounters. A latrine cleaner who volunteers herself for the vacant manager job, Nombeko is met with this response: “For God’s sake, I can’t very well have a twelve-year-old latrine manager, can I?” When she replies that she is, in fact, fourteen, her boss continues, “Have you started using drugs yet?…Are you pregnant?…Then I suppose you’ve got the job, if you can stay sober.” The quick-fire exchange between the two is so ridiculously satirical that when it dawns on the reader that it actually isn’t, a mixture of sadness over injustice and hope for the underdog arises.
Meanwhile, as Nombeko learns how to read and subsequently teaches herself higher-level math in addition to world history and current events (she figures she should have a sound idea as to why she lives in a shack), a set of twins is born to a Ingmar, a Swedish postal worker who has an unhealthy obsession with the Swedish monarchy, and his wife Henrietta. Ingmar’s desire for a child begins and ends with the notion that either he or his offspring will eradicate the monarchy. So when two children are unexpectedly born, he thanks his lucky stars that the midwife doesn’t get to their home in time and names the children Holger One and Holger Two and pretends to the world that the two boys are one in the same by allowing only one out at a time.
So, “A: Humor”—check.
But is The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden about “B: Geopolitical Commentary”? Yes, it’s about that too. In between 419 pages, Nombeko and Holger Two meet in Sweden all because of an atomic bomb. Jimmy Carter makes an appearance and two Chinese sisters are shipped to Sweden in a crate (along with a bomb). Outlandish? Yes. This is not an easy book to summarize. But in a way, a plot summary is secondary, for I think what Jonasson is partly trying to do here is take a look at what’s going on in our world from a faraway vantage point. How does a girl from Soweto end up in Sweden and alert the POTUS to nuclear weapons? Jonasson uses a knowledge of how our global systems work to create a plot that, in some strange realm, could maybe happen.
But despite the absurd laughs and veiled statements about the state of our world, the book is poignant and bittersweet, and in my opinion, is really about “C: Humans’ Need to Be Known.” When Holger Two and Nombeko discover a fondness for each other, she realizes that “…in some ways, she existed just as little as he did. Naturally, a person who doesn’t exist does best with someone who also doesn’t exist.” Readers can rave about the author’s clever use of humor or rant about the state of our world reflected in Jonasson’s words, but I’d like to think that the book ultimately sheds light on the universal desire to connect with someone who really “sees” us.
If Jonasson’s ability to use two different methods (the A and the B) to illuminate a greater idea allows us to discuss something more than what’s presented to us, then perhaps we could, in fact, take a cue from Sweden, or at least one of its writers.