If you think it’s impossible to write a quirky, even madcap tale that involves a reluctant hitman, a disillusioned priest and sex hotel receptionist down on familial luck, then you have severely underestimated the talents of Swedish novelist Jonas Jonasson.
The writer of internationally-successful novels The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonasson is a man with a gift for drawing together disparate characters and elements and fashioning into a thoroughly convincing, not to mention hilarious, whole.
And for using them to delightfully skewer all kinds of societal and organisational pretensions in such a way that people you wouldn’t normally sympathise with suddenly become entirely relatable.
“Per Persson was astounded. First the priest had wanted to help herself to the money in Hitman Ander’s envelope without his knowledge. Then she’d had him on the verge of flushing red with shame for having accused her of that very thing. Now she was entering into a lending agreement with the hitman. Didn’t she have any survival instincts at all? Didn’t she realise that she was putting both of them in mortal danger. Curse the woman!” (p. 23)
For instance, you may think at the start of Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All – FYI there’s no real answer provided on that score; rather, musings from a whole of people, all of whom are wondering why it is their lives are the way they are and if it’s possible to change them – that you couldn’t possibly find sympathy, or empathy even, with an alcoholic hitman-for-hire.
But as the book continues on, and the story of one Johan Andersson unfolds, you begin to realise that no one’s life story is as simple and straightforward as it appears and that even a dimwitted, easily-conned dispatcher of people for the mob and other unsavoury criminal elements might regret his choice of vocation and long for an altogether different life.
One in which there is way less maiming and killing and far more love, Jesus and cheap Moldovan wine.
Or perhaps you can’t imagine feeling kinship with a priest by the name of Johanna Kjellander, who sits on a park bench one day, without a parish or much of a future and great regrets about following in the family priesthood line, only to meet Pers Persson, whose family hasn’t caught any kind of break for a good few decades now.
Together these two people, who share a distaste for the world in all its disappointing forms – their list of things they hate doesn’t shrink a little as the novel goes on and they realise that perhaps life does have something quite likable to offer them – and who believe there is no chance of anything good lasting long enough to change their circumstances for good, bond together, and with Hitman Anders embark on a zany search the length and breadth of southern Sweden in the search for the elusive meaning of it all.
Jonasson’s real talent with a book of this nature, that actually does ask some fairly weight questions in amongst the quips, asides, and patently ludicrous but somehow believable situations, is that he neatly balances the serious with the silly in such a way that Hitman Anders never ever feels one joke disposable.
It’s a real risk with a book that hangs its hat on the madcap and the absurd.
“The witnesses from the pavement outside Systembolaget were very willing to be interviewed by the media and questioned by the police. One female blogger published a post on the theme of how she was likely single-handedly responsible for preventing a massacre just be coming around the corner and frightening away the perpetrators in the nick of time. When she was called in to give a statement, it turned out that the only thing she could say for certain was that Hitman Anders and his henchmen had fled in a red Volvo.” (p.135)
In less skilled hands, you end up with an eminently forgettable book full of characters you don’t care about occupying a narrative that seems utterly lightweight and inconsequential.
Funny maybe but hardly worth sticking with since there’s no real reason, other than a few chortles to give a damn about what happens to these people.
But in Johansson’s hands, the hitman, the priest and the receptionist all matter in their own way, their humanity shining through even in patently over the top situations such as opening a company, with no experience whatsoever, specialising in serious injury and assassination, or buying a church and constructing a quasi-Christian religious organisation which has drunken consumption of cheap wine as one of its main sacraments.
Even the criminals, who really shouldn’t affect you one little bit except as fodder to propel the protagonists forward in the narrative, matter in their own way.
And it’s this innate humanity matched with some wry and often nonsensical observations that make Johansson’s books and particularly Hitman Anders such a rewarding read.
After all, who hasn’t sat there at some point, no matter how successful their life might appear on the surface, wondering if there isn’t more to things than what’s before you.
It’s not just hitman, priests and receptionists, none of whom have had particularly pleasing lives, who muse on these kinds of questions.
Granted the way they go about remedying things is a far cry from anything any of us are likely to try but the reality is everyone at some point has wondered if changing their life is possible and how one earth you’d go about it.
Probably not by launching a ridiculously profitable hit man service, or fleeing into the wilds and not-so-wilds of Sweden in a campervan and dispensing money to deserving causes while you wage a hearts-and-minds campaign through the press, but who’s to say that wouldn’t work for you too?
“Neither the receptionist nor the priest had any experience of how the housing market worked. Per person has spent his entire adult life sleeping behind a hotel lobby or in a camper-van. Johanna Kjellander’s knowledge of the same matter encompassed little more than her dad’s parsonage, a student-housing corridor in Uppsala, and her dad’s parsonage again (as a new graduate she’d had to commute between her childhood bedroom and her job, twelve miles away; this was the most freedom her dad would allow).” (p. 315)
Jonasson nicely treads a line between the silly, the giggle-worthy and the plain hilarious, and the weightier considerations of life in a novel peppered with spot-on observations and the kinds of sentiments that even the most beige and mundane of us have entertained at one point or another.
Maybe you’ll find the answers you seek, and maybe you won’t – even with the happy ending of sorts that graces the book, no one gets to live a fairytale which is the way of things if we’re going to be brutally honest – but like Hitman Anders and his thoroughly pragmatic and often unwilling partners in life-changing crime, you may find that life has a way of serving you up just you need at the exact moment you figure it’s given up on you for good.
And who knows maybe, like Jonasson’s books and the characters who inhabit them, you’ll have a good knowing laugh when it happens.