Book review: Onda Boken by Kaj Korkea-aho

I am a little behind the game on this one. Onda Boken (The Evil Book) came out in Swedish in 2015. However, I believe it is a real pity – if not a scandal – that it has not been picked up by English publishers.

It is an astonishingly powerful book with a satisfying combination of realistic quotidian narrative, profoundly affecting themes, and just a hint of black magic. Questions of life, death, hope and hell are presented and yet never overpower the storyline. Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement is his sense of timing. The stories of the two protagonists are interwoven and secrets continually come to light, making each chapter more gripping than the last. The plot unfolds perfectly and tension is built up steadily until, after a somewhat slow beginning, it reaches a sense of urgency about half way through which only heightens as the book flows towards a crescendo which made me literally gasp several times.

It is a book about depression, despair, and suicide. It centres around crises of masculinity and a sense of isolation, which is highlighted by the language barrier experienced by the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland. However, the author somehow manages to present the dark themes authentically while never allowing darkness to swallow the entire book. The writing style is witty, allowing the humorous internal dialogue of the protagonists to punctuate the story with a wry, foul-mouthed and amusing take on the world. The book even manages to end with a small but very real glimmer of hope for redemption. There are also many intertextual references which connect the book to other authors, times and places, adding to the underlying theme of the transformative power of literature. All of this, coupled with a sense of catharsis after the intensely dark episodes of the book, adds up to an overall sense of satisfaction and guarded optimism at the end of the book.

The story is set in a small university town in Finland. The remarkably attention-grabbing first chapter begins in a literature lecture with professor Mickel Backman. A stubborn, unpredictable and acid-tongued student, Pasi Maars, announces that he will write his essay on a little known local poet called Leander Granlund, who wrote a book so evil that all who read it were damned to hell. Mickel discourages him, but tells his class the story of Granlund. His poetry was rejected by publishers at the same time as his brother was to marry the woman he loved. His revenge was to poison and kill the publisher who rejected him, his brother and his bride, and eight of their wedding guests. The evil book is his last collection of poems entitled Ur lifvets sorgesamma dunkel (Of life’s melancholy obscurity).

Mickel and his wife Myrna share a stale and passionless marriage in which Mickel is emotionally powerless. Their depressed son Ragnar never visits. Myrna confronts him about a woman he calls Lolita, and he admits to having an affair several years ago with a student called Elsa who he last saw being taken to hospital. Myrna reveals that she also had an affair with Mårten Tanner, a publisher whom Mickel despises and who takes part in an elite and misogynistic cultural club.

The second protagonist, Calle Hollender, is a student at the university and a standup comedian whose girlfriend Helena breaks up with him early in the story. He is a friend of Pasi Maars and is concerned that he is suicidal.

As a response to his desperate financial situation, Calle begins stealing and selling valuable books from the university library. He and Pasi reflect on their hopelessness and uselessness. There are no jobs, no bright futures. Only drugs, procrastination and pointlessness.

 

Unbeknown to them, the lives of Calle and Mickel are complexly connected. And The Evil Book holds the key to both of their fates…

Schildt & Söderströms, 2015

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