Monday, September 26, 2016

Art from Sweden

We attended a Harvest-fest in the town of Finland, Minnesota, the other day. I don't know what they harvest up there in the woods, and the local band didn't even include an accordion!

Returning home, I found myself briefly immersed in Swedish culture.  

A Man Called Ove, a new film by Hannes Holm based on the (Swedish) best-seller by Fredrik Backman,  tells the tale of an aged grouch at a residential development who is no longer the manager but can't resist criticizing everyone for slight infractions of the compound's rules. His demeanor is dour and his comments are abrasive. Nobody likes him and we don't either. The film is littered with minor domestic incidents, serious accidents, touching moments, a few attempted suicides, and a house fire or two, during which we get to know some of his neighbors at the housing development, and especially an Iranian woman named Parvaneh who blithely ignores his gruff exterior and soon has him babysitting her two young children. We also learn about his long-time friend Rune, with whom Ove had a dispute years earlier that turned into a serious rift. You see, Ove will only drive a Saab, while Rune prefers a Volvo. Interspersed with these episodic scenes are a series of lengthy flashbacks during which we learn something about Ove's early life, and especially how he met his remarkably charming wife Sonja (recently deceased).

It all adds up to an attractive, well-fashioned tale about a fairly unattractive man. He doesn't have a heart of gold, but as it turns out, he does, at least, have a heart.

Hannes Holm was in attendance at the screening, and he said a few words after the film. "I've been hearing about Minnesota since I was a boy," he said at one point, "and now I've finally got here."

He also mentioned that A Man Called Ove ranks as the third-highest grossing Swedish-language film in history.

After the screening I ran into Holm sitting with Susan Smoluchowski and a gentleman in a suit from the American Swedish Institute at a table in front of Pracna on Main and I couldn't help butting in to ask him what the two top-ranking films might be.

"Fanny and Alexander?" No.

"My Life as a Dog?" No.

"Sven Klang's Combo?" NO. But he couldn't remember. I later determined that The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window is tops. But that's as far as I got.

In The Invoice, Swedish novelist Jonas Karlsson presents us with a fable along the lines of Patrick Suskind's The Pigeon and Julien Barnes's The Hedgehog, namely, a short book with a short title and a single guiding concept. Karlsson tries to imagine what it would be like if everyone were billed by an international organization on the basis of the quality of their experiences, rather than their income, with the revenue redistributed to victims of floods, earthquakes, civil disorder, disease, and so on.

The nameless protagonist, whom we'll call Ingvar, is a young single male who lives alone, works part-time in a video shop, and spends his evenings eating take-out food and watching films. His only friend, Roger, stops in at the video store from time to time to help him eat his lunch, but otherwise offers little in the way of conversation or companionship. When Ingvar receives his "bill," he tosses it into the trash. He hasn't paid much attention to the publicity surrounding the government initiative and the sum is absurdly high. After the third or fourth notice arrives, he comes to recognize that the bill is actually meant for him, but he's confident there's been some mistake, and he spends the rest of the book trying to find out what's really going on.

This quest soon leads to a contact in the bureau named Maud, with whom Ingvar spends lots of time on the phone—to his delight. He also makes several visits to bureau headquarters, where executives attempt to demonstrate, using psychological profiles and a bulging file of data regarding the details of his private life, that Ingvar's been a lot happier than he thinks over the years. The time has come to pay up.

Trouble is, Ingvar hasn't got any money. He makes an  effort to recall distressing and hitherto overlooked episodes in hopes of getting his bill renegotiated, but when the facts are fed into the relevant algorhythms, the invoice only climbs higher.

There is a certain mild interest to the concept undergirding this narrative. It raises interesting questions about the degree to which status, money, and social engagement relate to happiness. But Ingvar's telephone conversations with his caseworker, Maud, are what keep the story lively. Karlsson weaves in one or two details from Ingvar's film-watching life to add complexity to this budding relationship, and it saves the book in a way I wouldn't want to describe here.

In the end, many readers will remain unconvinced that Ingvar is really all that happy. If not, then somebody did make a mistake. And in any case, why should someone have to pay for having been born with a copacetic disposition? Wouldn't it be better to assign him some sort of community service, considering that money doesn't seem to buy happiness anyway?         

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