Monday, January 11, 2016

Grumpy Old Men in Scandinavia

I am not sure what attracts me to novels featuring curmudgeonly old men and their adventures in Scandinavia. I remember laughing out loud when I read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. Two new books I have just read about adventures in the far north are far more serious.

In Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller we find 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz, who has reluctantly moved to Oslo following the death of his wife. Living with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband, Horowitz is often talking to the ghosts of his past, including his Korean War buddies and his son, who was killed in Vietnam. When Horowitz witnesses the murder of a woman in his apartment, he flees with her six-year-old son, escaping the murderers as well as the Norwegian police.

Far less violent is the novel A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, which takes place across the border in Sweden. Once again there is a grumpy, older protagonist who just lost his wife. But instead of Ove being the foreigner, that role is played by his next door neighbors, who have a habit of backing trailers into mailboxes and falling from ladders.

In both books, the past plays a major role. For Horowitz of Norway, who is suffering from dementia, the days are filled with drawn-out conversations with dead friends and pangs of regret for allowing his son to enlist in the army. In the Swedish novel, Ove makes futile attempts to kill himself as cleanly as possible, so that he can reunite with his departed wife.

Ove is kept alive by a stray cat that adopts his home. In Horowitz’s tale, this role is played by a young boy. Neither the cat nor the boy has speaking roles, yet both manage to relieve some of the grumpiness of the main characters.

For Ove, the bad guys are white-shirted bureaucrats, while Horowitz is chased by gun-wielding Kosovars, Serbians, and Koreans. Ove’s adventures are comic and heartwarming, but Horowitz faces real-life killers. He must resort to military tactics he learned a lifetime ago, including creating a homemade ghillie suit on the fly, in order to survive. Horowitz's maneuvers may be a bit of a stretch for an octogenarian and the ending of his story a bit too contrived, but readers will still enjoy accompanying him on his journey.

Fredrik Backman, a blogger and columnist, is a bestselling Swedish novelist. His debut novel's protagonist was born on his blog, where over 1,000 readers voted for Backman to write a novel about Ove.

Derek B. Miller is the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmanent Research. He lives in Oslo with his wife and children. Norwegian by Night is his first novel.

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