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Sweetness from the Swede: Michele Magwood Reviews The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson’s Latest Novel

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Girl Who Saved the King of SwedenThe Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden
Jonas Jonasson (Harper Collins)

Jonas Jonasson was looking leached and faintly oyster-eyed in the fulgent Cape sun. He’d just flown in from minus degrees in Sweden, a long, broken journey from his home on the island of Gotland to stay with a friend in Cape Town, and he looked exhausted.

Aiming swigs of rooibos at a sore throat, he was clearly happy to be back in the country, though. “I love it here, I find South Africa is so alive.”

The droll, quietly spoken author is best known for his eccentric sleeper hit The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which to date has sold seven million copies. He is still astonished at its success. “I thought that it was so Swedish no one would be interested in it, but it was eventually translated into 40 languages.”

The book was born out of personal catastrophe. Jonasson was a journalist-turned-media-mogul when he suffered something of a nervous breakdown. He sold his company for a great deal of money and moved to a remote part of the country. Marriage to a woman he met online ended in a rough divorce, and he fled to Gotland with his young son.

All the time he was reading. “I love Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Lorca. I was influenced by magical realism, by Latin American writing. I read a lot of modern history, too. ” He also started fiddling with a story about an old man.

“I was just writing for myself. I remember coming to the part where I entered the brain of Winston Churchill and I thought, ‘Can one do it like this?’” He shrugs. “By then I had the courage to say well, I just did!”

He’d also like to have entered the mind of Madiba in the story. “I wanted Allan to pass by South Africa in his world tour and meet Mandela, but the timing was wrong, because at that time Mandela was in prison.”

Instead he saved his interest in South Africa for his new novel, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. The Swedish title translates literally as “The Analphabet Who Knew How to Count”, “analphabet” being a wonderful word for “illiterate”, but the publishers chose a safer title.

It’s the story of Nombeko Mayeki, born poor in Soweto in 1961 and destined for an abject existence. Except she is preternaturally clever with numbers.

“I wanted to write about two of the greatest stupidities of mankind: apartheid and the atomic bomb. So stupid it is almost charming,” says Jonasson in his slightly fractured English.

And so, like the 100-year-old-man, our heroine Nombeko is flung into a madcap, picaresque journey across the world that involves nuclear bombs, biltong and art forgery. In parts it is discomfiting for South African readers as Jonasson lampoons the old political milieu – the “K-word” jumps shockingly from the page, for instance – but we’re in Tom Sharpe territory here, the blithe, faux-naïve observations reminding us of the sheer absurdity of this history. His portrait of PW Botha is priceless.

The book has been showered with stars on Goodreads and Amazon, and is flying off the shelves here, so it seems Jonasson has another hit on his hands.

What does he think the secret of his success is?

“I somehow give hope – I want to spread hope, I am hopeful. I see people leading such grey lives – grey weather, grey offices. Maybe they would also like to climb out of a window and change the world.”

Follow @michelemagwood on Twitter

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