Meet Ove, the unusual protagonist of a million-copy international bestseller (Book Review)

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(Book: A Man Called Ove; Author: Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch; Publisher: Hachette; Price: Rs 350; Pages: 304)

The quality of fiction is said to be on a decline globally — with non-fiction garnering greater attention as well as market share. This 2014 international bestseller that has just been published in India is proof to the contrary.

“A Man Called Ove” is one of those rare books — simple and lucid, with little aesthetic nuances that the fiction genre is fast losing. Every ideal fiction title is a product of the immense creativity that goes into shaping its plot, characters and language. Fredrik Backman combines all of these aspects to turn this novel into a true classic for the next generation.

Backman’s creative genius is best reflected in “Ove”, his grumpy protagonist. Almost 60 years old, Ove is ill-tempered. He is not the usual protagonist, ever adventurous and ready to take risks. Rather, Ove does not like change.

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Having lost both of his parents early, Ove was compelled to drop out of school and struggle to earn a living. He remained unhappy for many, many years until he met his wife. He describes her as “colourful” and says that she was the only spot of cheer in his life. His wife, we find, is the exact opposite to Ove, but she falls in love with his simplicity.

Ove is regularly talking to her in the novel, preparing coffee for her and wondering what she may think of his actions. All of this is conveyed in the present tense and highlights Ove’s attachment. Only later does one realise that she is already dead. But Ove can feel her presence all around the house and even talks to her, we are told, in the cemetery, where she is buried.

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The grumpy old man is constantly sad and wishes to reunite with his wife after his death. He is desperate and cannot wait for his death to arrive. He is obsessed with killing himself — and though he attempts suicide several times, his attempts go in vain. Something miraculous happens each time.

On one occasion, he is about to jump in front of a train. But Ove looks into the eyes of the driver, who is desperately trying to stop the train, and gives up on his attempt as he does not wish to be the reason behind somebody’s nightmares thereafter.

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the greatest motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves,” Backman writes, aptly capturing Ove’s psyche.

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The novel, despite its unhappy protagonist, resonates with optimism. A tale of unconditional love, simplicity and a reminder of the fact that what you want out of life isn’t always what you get out of it, this novel, originally written in Swedish, is a classic example of fine writing.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at [email protected])



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