Thoughts: Die Analphabetin Die Rechnen Konnte, by Jonas Jonasson and translated by Wibke Kuhn

You might think I’ve been reading faster than the human eye can possibly read, but actually this one has been in the works for months – we’ve been reading it bit by bit during and between German classes, and we have finally prevailed!

One day I will read a German book that hasn’t been translated from another language. But not any time soon – next on the German class list is Jonas Jonasson’s first book, Der Hundertjährige, der aus dem Fenster stieg und verschwand. You might know it better as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

You might know this book as The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. (The German title translates to “The Illiterate [Girl] Who Could Calculate”, or maybe a snappier way to say it would be “The Illiterate Who Was Numerate”? I digress.) Will try not to be too spoilery.

Die Analphabetin… is a light, picaresque romp through history and politics from the 60s to the late 00s, through what were for me, a Brit with quite a rubbish grasp of modern history, slightly more interesting/rare viewpoints than those I expect to see world history filtered through, from South Africa to Sweden to China with all kinds of detours in between. Jonasson passes through filthy political dealings and nuclear double-crossings with a light, dry touch, which nonetheless sometimes lets out a little flash of anger here and there.

He’s a comic writer first and foremost, I think, gleefully pulling back the curtains on fantastically absurd backstories for his colourful cast of characters and their parents and acquaintances, and dropping details that seem merely amusing until they come back into play chapters down the line and whole lives and plots hinge on them. He sets up his “convenient coincidences” ages in advance – it’s always a joy to see them pay off – and at the same time has no compunction with dropping our protagonists deeper and deeper into the shit. Sometimes literally! Our heroine, Nombeko, starts the book as a latrine worker in a Soweto slum during apartheid.

Jonasson can sometimes skim maybe a little too lightly over the deep stuff, and from time to time Nombeko’s pragmatic view of a hard, unfair world brushes up against her white Swedish associates’ more sheltered viewpoints in ways that I sort of wish had been a little more explored, as it can seem a little glib and fall into superficial cod-philosophy of the Hector and the Search for Happiness kind (I was sure I’d posted about this here – I know I’ve read it.)

In terms of German reading, it was difficult, especially during the summaries of world politics, but definitely rewarding, and I got enough to find it funny and appreciate the twists and tricks of the plot. Recommended.

Oh yeah – and Black Lives Matter.

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