26 December 2010

Once upon a time in Scandinavistan by Zac O'Yeah

Superpower India II
This a crime novel based in Gothenburg, Sweden.
But Gothenburg is now known as Gautampuri, because Europe has been colonized by India. India is now a great world superpower – much as it is in We Can Pull It Off by Suresh Taneja – but with a rather different slant.

Our hero is Herman Barsk – overweight, untidy and generally unlovable in all kinds of ways. He lives down an alley named Saar Vidia Naipaul Mohalla. His Eskimo dog, Bobby, is tragically no more, leaving poor Barsk all alone in this cruel world: his mum was dead; his father a random customer whose dick had proved too big for the second-hand condom that Barsk’s stingy mum kept recycling. And the crime now confronting him is a death – or several deaths – which involve a tandoor and suspected marination (in yoghurt sauce?) beforehand.

This book is a spoof in other ways too.

Sweden is now a tropical haven – the greenhouse effect has relocated the Sahara desert northwards; the Mediterranean dried up completely and Europe covered in sand dunes as high as the Eiffel Tower all the way up to central Denmark. Palm trees took root in central Gothenburg and by the time this story takes places, have begun to give lovely nuts and people have cancelled their holiday trips down south.
As for the Danes – they have accepted their fate without complaining, lit up a few joints, and become Bedouins. With the exception of a small group of nudists who refused to dress in caftans.
And Finns litter the streets of Masthugget. They constitute, technically speaking, a lower caste, their status far below that of native Swedes. Statistically, a significant number of them suffer from a Molotov cocktail of venereal disease, tuberculosis and grave brain damage.
Caste, in fact, is so crucially important that people change their names for social acceptability. One character, Rex von Spearman, was (according to his wife) actually born Sven Swenson. Oh and yes he now happens to be impotent ... from excessive mobile phone usage.

And Sweden is a country in crisis, financial as well as spiritual.
The roots of the new administration are to be found in the Indian Administrative Service – the Nehruvian steel frame installed in decolonized India, by which thousands of lifetime administrators handled the welfare of billions. After they took over, there had been neither financial crashes nor any other large-scale problems in Europe.

Once you’ve stopped using your vomit bag – one of Barsk’s favourite hobbies actually – and controlled the guffawing, you might notice that this book is not just a crime novel, not just a spoof. It’s also a rather sharp anthropological analysis of cultural elements.
There are, for instance, certain things about India that are sure to live on and on: K.C. Das and Ambedkar, for example; the Dalai Lama, Jadhavpur University, green rabbit USE ME bins, Femina, Tehelka, matrimonial advertisements, and cheap restaurants serving Asian food. And yoga. And deep, abiding faith in karma.
And language has been colonized too: we have a BC (bad character) Committing Nuisance in a Public Place and more.
And there are certain things about Swedish lifestyle and culture that could not possibly last, barring a few faded beauties from old Bergman films. Even the old and solid doors are gone, to be replaced by doors of Bhutanese board. Swedish people now live in a broken-down native quarter, unhealthy from too few baths, eating too much meat, and boozing it up all day long.

Though I was charmed by the thinking that went into this book, I found it tedious for my taste – it just went on and on and I never found myself so engrossed in the plot that I longed to know what happened next. And a few tiny points niggled: “innerwear” is hilarious for sure – but why not “chaddis”, which, after all, has Oxford English Dictionary status? And what on earth had happened to Ikea?
Finally, with so many characters driving around in Volvos, it seemed that Zac O'Yeah had picked Volvo to represent the last remaining outpost of Swedish civilization. However, this book was actually first published in 2006, in Swedish.
And, aha, in May 2010 the Volvo car company was quite prophetically taken over by the Chinese – so there you go.

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