COFFEE AND CULTURE: A MAN CALLED OVE
A cantankerous white man has opinions about coffee and various other things.
‘People didn’t know how to do that anymore, brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a pot of coffee?’
Many authors would not feel the need to write a novel with such a historically well documented character type at the centre. There is nothing unknown about grumpy white men with opinions, no escapism in reading about grumpy white men with opinions, we all have a grumpy white man with opinions in our life.
But despite the flooded market, I enjoyed reading about this grumpy white man with opinions called Ove. And if it hadn’t been for Fredrik Backman, none of us would have known about Ove, because while yes his philosophy (my word, not his) of humanity is as malleable as gobstopper, it’s none of your business. And he’ll tell you that for free.
The novel begins in an unnamed computer hardware store synonymous with forbidden fruit, in a relatable conversation between Ove and the sales assistant. Your age, technology literacy level and hospitality experience dictates who you relate more strongly to. It’s flexible.
This is the joy of this book. Right from the beginning we slip between either judgement of a man who is rigid, abrupt and rude, or compassion for a man who’s world is flying by him like a bullet train that he’s expected to aboard between stations with no hope of it slowing down just to let little old Ove alight. The sales assistant only gets our sympathy. Poor thing.
The judgement and compassion response grows a little more nuanced as the story continues. As more is revealed of his past, of his childhood, worklife, marriage and now widowerhood, we feel a loss on his behalf for missed opportunities, and small joys snatched away too soon. Yet he plods, steadily on. I was moved between frustration at his introverted nature that allowed a colleague to destroy his career, and satisfaction when love found him despite it. I yearn for the days of old that Ove keeps alive – of seeing things and objects as having inherent value, as deserving of maintenance and upkeep because of their connection with people and places he cares for (deep down that is. He just thinks he likes order and resourcefulness. Rather, he hates chaos and waste. He’s a glass half empty kinda guy). I am infuriated when this philosophy doesn’t extend to anyone other than his late father and late wife. On the whole (quite literally) he regards anyone who doesn’t fit into his idea of what a person should be with disdain, incomprehension, annoyance, and contempt. It’s when he laments the state of the world if people can’t brew a proper cup of coffee, I am forced to lay down my sword of censure and pick up the mirror of contrition. Ove and I are of one mind.
But as the world carries on regardless of Ove’s misgivings, people who don’t share Ove’s misanthropist tendencies, but rival his stubbornness, enter Ove’s world despite his protestations. Slowly, Ove’s neighbours weather down his granite exterior with a dogged, thick-skinned determinism that deflects Ove’s impertinence like teflon and answers it with inclusion, kindness, hospitality, understanding, and love.
A Man Called Ove is an optimistic view of community, and challenges our view of ourselves. It gives us an opportunity to feel uncomfortable as we relate more and more to Ove’s undesirable and intolerant idiosyncrasies and philosophies, it also gives us opportunity to reform, through accepting kindness or giving it. Backman does this gently, and without judgement of his own, and celebrating the strengths of Ove’s character – nurturing, tending to, and seeing the value in seemingly everyday things, namely, the importance of a morning started with a proper cup of coffee.