It becomes obvious, almost from the first pages of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, where we meet the savvy though often misjudged Soweto latrine emptier Nombeko Mayeki, that Jonas Jonasson (The 100 Year Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared) is a talented heir apparent to the often under-estimated Scandinavian penchant and talent for absurdist, over the top comedy with heart.
His gift for taking the most ridiculous ingredients and weaving them seamlessly, and with great humour, into a captivating tale of one girl’s climb from the slums of South Africa, with quite a few detours along the way (all of them graciously handled and used eventually to good effect), to Sweden and an abandoned building-come-pillow factory in Fredsgatan then to a potato farm in Sjölida and finally back to South Africa under vastly more elevated circumstances, is masterfully impressive.
He somehow manages to take elements as diverse as twenty pounds of antelope meat, a three ton megaton nuclear bomb, twin boys (one officially registered with the Swedish government, one not by an eccentric father who confusingly named them both Holger), dentures made of diamonds, a procession of modern political figures including Hu Jintao, Nelson Mandela and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, a statue of Lenin, fake Chinese pottery and three sisters who grow rich making and selling them, a Countess potato farmer, and a crazed potter who sees the CIA around every corner, and fashion a cohesive, clever narrative from it, that only peters out a little towards the end.
For the most part though, it is a glorious, fun-filled, romp through the pages of modern history (events are faithfully though amusingly conveyed to set time and place), with wry political and societal observations sitting cheek-by-jowl with characters and plot points so outrageously implausible they begin to seem quite sane and rational after a while (a fluffily benign version of Stockholm Syndrome perhaps?), and a cheeky sense of humour that rarely lets up or pauses for breath.
You could be forgiven for wondering, as the impossible twists and turn pile up like Mossad agents at the bottom of the Baltic Sea – there are deaths aplenty but they all happen to those who most deserve it and in fantastically inventive and pleasing ways – whether you can possibly survive all that rollicking hilarity coming at you page after page, sometimes paragraph after paragraph.
After all, even good farce can become exhausting, as you race to keep up with the rapid fire jokes, silly observations and verbal and physical slapstick, and yet somehow Johansson largely manages to not overstay his welcome, with the characters remaining as fresh and fun to be around at the conclusion of their unlikely tale as they are at the beginning.
This is not to say that The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden isn’t without its flaws.
It is, as previously noted, a little weak and repetitive in its final chapters, with the absurdist denouement sputtering a little as the plot is stretched out over a dinner party involving an angry revolutionary woman, her aristocratic grandmother and republican boyfriend Holger One, Nombeko and her boyfriend the (officially) non-existent Holger Two, a drunk Mossad agent, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden, some tractor repairing and a happy tying up of loose ends.
And you do long at times for characters to behave as normal people, and not as crazy, silly, Chaplin-esque fodder for narrative momentum, who though likeable are sometimes a little hard to care about.
The most well-rounded, and the one in whom you become most invested is, of course, hardy maths genius Nombeko, a woman with an insatiable love of reading and information acquiring, an almost savant gift for language learning and all the emotional and intellectual nous that anyone could ask for (and which comes in mighty handy throughout the book where great demands are made of our plucky protagonist).
She is never less than a delight, always one step ahead of those who would derail her making-it-as-she-goes life, even when when she is quite palpably slipping far behind, and the main reason, along with some incisive political and societal observations that do provide a welcome pause for thought, why Jonassons’ action-packed, wittily-written, fairy floss-light literary confection is such a beguiling, if ephemeral, joy to read.