Rating: 2 stars
I’ve read both of Jonas Jonasson’s previous books. I really enjoyed The Hundred Year Old Man. I thought it was an inventive piece of fiction that had some nice moments of comedy and an affectionate warmth running through it. The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden was less successful in its attempts to be inventive, but I found it entertaining enough. While it shared its satirical bent, I thought it lacked the warmth of The Hundred Year Old Man.
Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All didn’t completely do it for me, either. The writing style felt a bit tired. The characters weren’t as well rounded or likeable. The story is a commentary on the violence of modern life, from the psychological violence of growing up with an alcoholic parent who rejects you and sets the benchmark for your misanthropy to the actual violence of being an alcoholic pill popper whose tendency to violence while under the influence leads you to become a hitman. It’s also a commentary on faith and whether it has any sustaining purpose or whether it’s just a numbing sop to make people feel slightly better about their miserable lives. And it’s about people trying to escape the shadow of mistakes made by previous generations, people trying to find meaning, any kind of meaning, for their life. But these are people who don’t feel they have many positive options for pulling themselves out of the mire.
The main cast of characters is:
Per Persson, grandson of a man who failed to spot that tractors were going to be the end of his lucrative horse breeding business and lost the family fortune, causing his son (Per’s father) to become an alcoholic and subsequently abdicate responsibility for Per when his wife asked for a divorce.
Johan Andersson, aka Hitman Anders, raised by a toothless alcoholic mother. A man whose pills’n’booze lifestyle has landed him repeatedly in jail, who is trying to avoid a return there any time soon, and for whom being a thug for hire seems to be the safest way to manage his violence.
Johanna Kjellander, a priest who doesn’t believe in God and only became a priest because her father and grandfather were priests. She, too, is rejected by her father, but psychologically rather than physically, as he tries to retain control of her life.
The basic premise is that Hitman Anders isn’t a very focused hitman, so Per and Johanna cook up a business where they market Anders’s services and manage the requests for retribution, while Hitman Anders fulfills the requests.
Per and Johanna are misanthropes. Per feels cheated by life. Johanna feels that people are fools. Neither feels any liking for the world or the other people in it. For Per, this includes Johanna. But then he realises that they have a lot in common, and so he embarks on a romantic relationship with her to complement their business relationship. Initially unnoticed by them, Hitman Anders embarks on an existential crisis that plays out in early morning drinking and unreasonable violence towards inanimate objects. But then Hitman Anders starts seeking answers in religion. Things hit a sticky patch and, in order to keep the money coming in, the trio start their own religion. Improbable event follows improbable event.
I think the aim is supposed to be black humour, but black humour only really works if you feel something for its subjects. Liking, for example. Or revulsion. I didn’t feel anything much for anyone in the book. The premise for the novel is bleak, but bleak can be funny if you care about the protagonists. I found myself thinking about Andrey Kurkov’s novels about how fucked up life in Ukraine is, and Ryu Murakami’s books In the Miso Soup and Audition, and wishing that Hitman Anders was on a par. It wasn’t. It was just silly. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I was hoping for more.