The guy next grave
Grabben i graven bredvid by Katarina Mazetti. French title : Le mec de la tombe d’à côté. 1998. 254 pages. English title : Benny & Shrimp. (I don’t speak Swedish but I guess that the French title is the exact translation of the Swedish.)
Katarina Mazetti is a Swedish writer born in 1944. Le mec de la tombe d’à côté – I’ll keep the French title since it’s the right one – was published in 1998 in Sweden and its French translation was published in paperback in 2009. She sold 400 000 copies in France, it was made into a theatre play and should be made into a French film. A huge success. I picked it by chance, during one of my visits to a bookstore.
Desiree is in her thirties and her husband Örjan died five months ago from a stupid bike accident. “I feel let down that Örjan went and died. (…) Örjan should be feeling let down, too. All that tai chi, organic potato and polyunsaturated fat. What good did it do him?” Several times a week, she spends her lunch break on his grave, thinking. Benny does the same on his mother’s grave, next to Örjan’s.
Örjan’s grave is a simple stone with his name and Benny’s parents grave is the kitschest (does that word exist?) grave Desiree’s ever seen. They observe each other with sided glances and don’t like what they see. Here’s Desiree seeing Benny for the first time:
A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in a loud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up at the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNERS’ ALLIANCE. (…) He had a funny smell and only three fingers on his left hand.
And Benny’s exasperation at finding Desiree there, on the bench near the grave:
And then she’s there.
Faded, like some old colour photo that’s been on display for years. Dried-out blonde hair, a pale face, white eyebrows and lashes, wishy-washy pastel clothes, always something vaguely blue or beige. A beige person.
Things change on a misinterpretation of a smile on both sides and they start a relationship. We progressively discover their life and their past as they struggle through their affair.
The problems are Cultural Difference and Education Difference. Desiree is a librarian. She likes classical music, reading (obviously), going to the opera, discussing books and philosophy. Benny is a dairy farmer. He likes pop songs, TV, popular films and reads The Farmer. There’s something between them they can’t explain (Desiree says her ovaries loop the loop)
Written like this, it sounds corny. But it isn’t. Desiree is repressed and her marriage with Örjan was peaceful, egalitarian and intellectually interesting. It lacked passion and fun though. To me, being married to Örjan seemed as funny as being married to a golden fish. Desiree’s parents are alive but her mother is ill and doesn’t recognise her any more and her father doesn’t care for her. She’s alone and lonely. She hardly lets herself feel anything.
Benny’s parents were loving and more openly affectionate. His background is louder, more traditional too. He isn’t stupid; he had good grades in school. But he dropped out of school when his father died to take over the farm. Benny could sound misogynistic but he didn’t to me. Katarina Mazetti captured very well the life of a dairy farmer and the difficulty to meet someone who’s willing to live this life. It’s close to slavery because the cows must be milked twice a day. And they can’t wait. You need to be at home for them whatever happens in your personal life. And you need to be thorough because the milk is tested and the whole tank is wasted if the results are bad. You can’t afford to waste a whole tank, money is tight. You’re alone and you must face calving cows, out-of-order farming machines and all kinds of problems. Benny works A LOT, like dairy farmers do. So when he says he expects his wife to take care of the house, it’s more because he doesn’t have time to do it than because it’s a woman’s task. He’s very frustrated that his city girl-friend can’t cook meat balls. (Thanks to IKEA, the whole world knows that Swedish like meat balls) He’s looking for a partner, someone who shares his problems and helps him in case of emergency. It sounds sensible as a basis for a long-term relationship. The difficulty is that his emergencies are hard to handle for a city woman. They involve mud, dirty green overalls and wake-up calls in the middle of the night. Desiree thinks: “I tried to imagine myself in his life. But no picture came to my mind”
When Desiree tries to have him into her life, he gets bored or falls asleep, exhausted. She’s frustrated too. They need to hire two videos on Saturday nights, one for him and she does something else during the film and one for her and he usually bores himself to sleep. It’s the symbol of their couple.
Is their relationship doomed to failure?
I really enjoyed this book. It sounds simplistic and déjà-vu but it raises the eternal questions: what are you willing to give up for your lover? How far can you go to adapt to his/her way of life? Does it work on the long run? Do you need to share the same background, have similar tastes? Örjan and Desiree were a modern couple, sharing tasks, common values and but they weren’t that happy. I understand Desiree’s reaction – I couldn’t help in fields or with cows, I’m not build that way – and I also understand what Benny wishes for in a wife. I won’t tell the ending, it surprised me. It’s also a nice portrait of a contemporary dairy farmer, really true to life. I know one, I can tell.
I have to admit that the French cover is mawkish and if it hadn’t been published by Actes Suds, I wouldn’t have picked up the book to read the blurb. Once more, the English title has nothing to do with the original one. Why? For a reference to Frankie & Johnny? Benny & June? Marketing is always stronger than the respect of the artist’s idea. I hope Mazetti agreed to this title.
Something else about the English version. I downloaded a sample on my kindle for the quotes and was surprised to discover that this American version pushed the mawkishness to start Désirée’s chapters with embroidering pattern and Benny’s chapters with a cow pattern, in case you forgot he’s a farmer. I wonder why Désirée doesn’t have a book pattern since she’s a librarian. Is it too feminist to think she too could have a reference to her job instead of her sex? I suggest that Benny have an axe pattern, isn’t that a man’s job to cut wood?
Katarina Mazetti wrote a sequel translated into French, Caveau de famille (The Family Tomb). As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated into English. Yet. After my terrible experience with the sequel of Love Virtually — My 2011 winner of the stupidest title, so far — I’m going to skip on Caveau de famille.