Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through goodreads in return for an honest review.
Prior to this, I’ve read a few a few Swedish books that have offered a commentary on various aspects of African and Swedish politics (namely the Wallander series) and – for the most part- found them pleasant but occasionally tangential and difficult to follow. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden has raised the bar in this field and in spite of a few snicks was a really rather good read.
On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects.
Here is where the story merges with, then diverges from reality. South Africa developed six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantled them in 1994. This is a story about the seventh missile . . . the one that was never supposed to have existed. Nombeko Mayeki knows too much about it, and now she’s on the run from both the South African justice and the most terrifying secret service in the world. She ends up in Sweden, which has transformed into a nuclear nation, and the fate of the world now lies in Nombeko’s hands.
Opening in South Africa at the time of the Apartheid, this novel gently educated me about aspects of the regime of which I’d previously been unaware whilst mocking that system of government. It’s left me with a yen to find out more about a regime I still can’t believe existed in the late 20th century.
Little nuggets of information about the political situations of South Africa and a plethora of other countries are slipped in every chapter, which helped to provide extra context for the story and illustrated points made throughout. The information about George W Bush Jr’s decision to take Nelson Mandela off of the list of terrorists in 2008 was eye-opening, even though the country has a habit of being slow to change its foreign policies.
Seriously, Polish people still need visas to be able to even pass through the country and it’s not even a formality. Polish friends of mine have been unable to get flights to South America simply because they have to transfer in an airport in the US. They’re unable to spend a couple of hours in one airport simply because members of their families have moved out of Poland and are now living in other countries, such as Germany and the UK. Apparently this means that they will try to remain in the US instead of going to whichever other Latin-American country they’ve managed to get a summer scholarship to study in. As you can tell, this is a pet peeve, hence the Paragraph of Grumbling (PoG).
Back to the review
Both the protagonists’ and political situations were treated in the same seemingly light-hearted but deeply satirical way. My erstwhile flat-mate had problems enjoying the story because of this but I found it got the necessary horror and despair of the various situations across without putting the reader off by being bitter about these things. But then I’m the sort of person who, if I can’t laugh and try to brush off some of the really horrible situations, will end up rocking in a corner with what little faith I have in humanity shattered.
The characters were varied if stereotyped, which helped the humour of the piece. The one issue I really had was the pacing of the story from part of the way through chapter 17 to chapter 21. As the action was inevitable but the build-up took a little too long, the resulting situation felt a tad anti-climatic.
Note on the translation: though I obviously can’t compare it to the original text, Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation was a pleasure to read. The humour and nuances in the text were conveyed wonderfully and the text felt… perfectly, really. 🙂 According to some serious duckduckgo-ing, she’s translated a fair amount of exciting Swedish novels, including at least one of Arne Dahl’s crime series (that has been adapted for TV and is a darn good show). Am hoping to find other translations of hers on a local library shelf. 🙂
I heartily recommend it to anyone who’s never been particularly interested in South Africa’s political situation from the ‘60s onwards. And to people who have a dry sense of humour. And to those who dislike racism. That’s actually a fairly large number of people now that I think about it.