My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.
After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.
So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.
My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.
All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.
You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:
|Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller.||And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.|
Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.
I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.
Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?
The Linnea trilogy (my term) is composed of the following books by Katarina Mazetti:
- Det är slut mellan Gud och mej (God and I broke up, available in English) 1995
- Det är slut mellan Rödluvan och vargen (The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. Not translated into English) 1998
- Slutet är bara början (The End Is Only the Beginning. Not translated into English) 2002
I’ve already read two books by Katarina Mazetti (Benny and Shrimp, the English title is silly because the original means The Guy Next Grave) and Family Grave) and I thought they were good light books. You know, the kind of books that aren’t too difficult to read but are still well written? The ones I put in the Beach and Public Transport category? They’re relaxing. When I was struggling with Berlin Alexanderplatz, I read God and I Broke Up. When I was drowning in Flan O’Brien’s prose, I read The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up. And I closed the trilogy with The End Is Only the Beginning. I’m a bit in a rush to finish writing about the 2014 books I’ve read before the year ends, so I’m writing one billet about the three novellas.
In the first volume, we meet with Linnea. She’s sixteen and her best friend Pia has just died. She’s grieving while trying to live her adolescence.
|On n’a pas de statut quand on a perdu un ami! Si ton mari meurt, tu deviens veuve, une veuve vêtue de noir et les gens baissent la voix en ta présence pendant des années.Si c’est ton meilleur ami qui meurt, les gens te demandent après quelque temps pourquoi tu broies encore du noir.||You have no status when you lose a friend! If your husband dies, you become a widow dressed in black and people talk to you in a low voice for years. If your best friend dies, after a while, people ask you why you’re still feeling down.|
The novella is a first person narrative; we’re in Linnea’s head and the style reflects perfectly the mix of cockiness and insecurity of adolescence. Losing Pia makes Linnea feel isolated even if in appearances, she’s well adjusted. She has rather good grades, socialises with her classmates and takes part in family life. God and I Broke Up is not the portrait of a depressed teenager. It’s the portrait of an adolescent who lost her confident, the person she could loosen up with. Linnea used Pia as a sounding board for her ideas and vice versa. She’s grieving this precious intimacy. God and I Broke Up is the story of a banal adolescent. She lives in a small Swedish town where there’s not much to do, she goes to school and has the usual crushes, stories about classes and lunch breaks. Her mother is divorced and remarried with Ingo, an inspiring artist. He builds artwork with wood and lets his wife be the bread winner. They have a son together, Knotte who’s very close to Linnea. She’s a middle-class Swedish girl.
The salt of the novella is in the characters, their quirky ways and Linnea’s voice. It addresses the typical questions of adolescence: what about God?, what about love?, what about my future? and who am I? And Linnea tells you…
|Il ne faut pas gaspiller sa vie en courant entre les manèges et les stands comme à une fête foraine. Restez là où vous vous sentez vraiment bien. Il vaut mieux se décider en conscience que de laisser tout au hasard. Car il faut se décider. On ne peut pas conduire une moto et écouter le chant des oiseaux en même temps. On ne peut pas être à la fois cascadeuse et heureuse mère de sept enfants.||You shoudn’t waste your life running from one attraction to the other like you would in a funfair. Stay where you feel very good. It’s better to make the decision than let chance decided. Because you have to make a decision. You can’t ride a motorbike and at the same time listen to the birds singing. You cannot be a stuntman and the happy mother of seven children.|
I liked the second volume, The Red Riding Hood and the Wolf Broke Up, less than the first one. I don’t know if it’s the same in English or in Swedish –the French title is the exact translation of the original Swedish title, I checked— but in French, Elle a vu le loup (literally, She saw the wolf) means She lost her virginity. So in this second opus of the series, Linnea runs away to Los Angeles and loses her virginity on the way there. I was less keen on this one because I found it a bit unrealistic. What is interesting though is the depiction of Los Angeles. It demystifies the American dream that most European adolescents have. Linnea doesn’t end up in shiny Rodeo Drive. She ends up in the side of Malibu where people speak Spanish better than English and have two or three crappy jobs to survive. That’s a good wake-up call for us who see from the US mostly what the sunny TV series show us.
The last volume relates Linnea’s last year of high school…
|Nous voilà au début du premier trimestre de terminale, les professeurs se promènent en levant l’index d’un geste menaçant qui a l’art de plomber l’ambiance : « Ce sera peut-être l’année la plus importante de votre vie, vous comprenez, c’est maintenant que vous décidez de votre avenir !!! »||Here we are at the beginning of the first period of senior year. The teachers walk around with their index finger raised in a threatening manner and are masters at spoiling the fun: “This may be the most important year of your life, you understand. This is when you decide on your future!!!”|
…—it does ring a bell, doesn’t it? — and it’s about Linnea’s first love relationship with Per, Pia’s older brother. I thought this volume was as good as the first one. It doesn’t go for corny but for funny and real, like here when Linnea describes her attraction to Per:
|La pilosité dans le visage des garçons a quelque chose d’attirant, j’avais l’impression que ses sourcils lançaient des décharges de phéromones, et, pour être franche, je ne peux pas y résister. Une tablette de chocolat sur le ventre ne me fait aucun effet—mais donnez-moi un visage poilu et je craque sur le champ. Parfois je me dis que c’est parce que je n’ai jamais eu de chien quand j’étais petite…||Hair on a boy’s face is attracting. It was as if his eyebrows were shooting pheromones discharges and to be honest, I can’t resist it. Six-pack abs do nothing to me but give me a hairy face and I melt on the spot. Sometimes I think it’s because I never had a dog as a child.|
Er, I suppose the first part of this quote is rather comforting for hairy boys. Please note that in French a six-pack is tablette de chocolat (bars of chocolate). Back to the book. While Linnea contemplates and comments the effects of love on her mind and body, life goes on around her. Her friend Malin is in a tough spot, her grand-mother has a stroke and questions about university linger. Her relationship with Per stems from their connection to Pia and not from common interests so it fizzles over different visions of life. Per is in the military and Linnea’s background is rather alternative. Katarina Mazetti is a feminist and Linnea is a quiet feminist as well. She holds her ground and won’t let Per control her and that’s a valuable message to adolescent girls.
The Linnea trilogy is a light, fun and spot-on read. If you have teenagers around you, I recommend it because it’s the kind of book that leaves you relieved as in “Good, I’m not the only one who feels that way”. And I think it’s a very comforting thought. Plus, it’s easy to read and it may be a way to lure some into reading books!
Familjegraven by Katarina Mazetti 2005. French title: Le caveau de famille. Not available in English.
Family Grave is the sequel of Benny and Shrimp, a book I read almost two years ago. I wouldn’t have bought the sequel as these are usually disappointing unless the initial literary project was to write something in several volumes. Otherwise, once the pleasure of discovering a new set of characters and a new environment is gone, the sequel lacks the freshness of first impressions. In this case, my in-law lent me the book and I read it in two settings. It’s short, entertaining and does not really engage a lot of brain cells. Just look at the categories I chose; this is not a criticism, just a statement.
Mazetti’s characters are Benny, a farmer who struggles to keep his farm afloat by himself and Dérirée, who is a librarian and a city girl. They meet in the cemetery since Benny’s mother’s grave is beside Dérirée’s husband’s grave. They have nothing in common but still fall in love. In the sequel, we follow their improbable love story as they become parents. In this kind of book, with that kind of blurb, it can be anything from extremely corny to extremely funny and witty. Only the skills of the writer can make a difference. Perhaps it is, in a way, more difficult to write excellent fluffy books following well-battered paths than it is to write a book about yourself and your relationship with your mother.
But back to Benny and Désirée. Things weren’t easy between them in the first volume, they don’t improve in the second. It’s still written in the same light and funny tone as Benny and Shrimp and the details are rather realistic. Katarina Mazetti describes with a rather good accuracy the life of parents who both work and have several children under four years old. You live on a binary mode: Parent-Employee-Parent-Employee…Sometimes the man or the woman in you pops up provided that you haven’t fallen asleep before it can even happen. So it’s full of details that non-parents may have a hard time believing but that are still true. The huge piles of laundry, the illness that always occur at the worst moment, the desperate need to find someone to watch them when they’re ill and you need to work, the holidays that aren’t unwinding, the relief when it’s time for their nap or the constant run against to clock to get everything done and respect their need for meals and naps at fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong. There are wonderful moments with small children when you help them acquire new skills and cuddle them. These moments get enough advertising; it’s nice to have someone showing the other side of parenthood.
The only detail I had difficulties to swallow is that Désirée keeps on getting pregnant by accident. Don’t they have coils in Sweden? This is the 21st century and I have a hard time imagining it can happen to such an educated woman as Désirée.
The most interesting aspect of the book is about Benny and his farm. Katarina Mazetti’s husband is a farmer, so she knows how it works. Benny works all the time, doesn’t earn enough to support a family, struggles with EU paperwork and Désirée isn’t very optimistic about the future of agriculture in Sweden. Money is tight and farms disappear. Benny is the last one milking cows in his neighbourhood. His character, although a bit of a caricature, still rings true. I’m not saying that all farmers act like Benny but more that they encounter the same kind of troubles in their work.
This novel doesn’t pretend to be a masterpiece; it isn’t but it’s a good light read if you need one. It came as a nice distraction to Marcel’s claustrophic behaviour to Albertine.
A word about the covers. The French one is rather corny and the red heart is a link to the cover of the first volume. I think that the Italian one is awful and the book doesn’t deserve such a pink syrupy cover. Again, it’s a book marketed for women and we can’t escape pink. And those ridiculous butterflies! It has nothing to do with the book…
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.