Outside of literature I have a profound interest in religion. I may be an atheist myself but religion has long fascinated me. My main interest lies in the Islamic and Judaic religions and their associated histories and architecture, but I’m also drawn towards the culture and community of these religions, and in particular the culture of diasporas and the way in which religious communities embedded in foreign countries both resist and are influenced by a host nation’s culture. Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! (Portobello Books), a debut novel by Stephan Mendel-Enk (translated by Michael Lundin), explores one such diaspora – a Jewish one settled in Sweden, which is a great mystery to me. Before I dive into Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! I want to offer my initial forethoughts.
So, going back to my comment that the Jewish diaspora in Sweden was a mystery to me. I’m not naive enough to think that there are too many countries – especially European ones – that don’t have a Jewish community, but I’ve never really thought about Sweden in terms of Judaism. Sweden is one of these countries that quietly sits atop of the globe, and with the exception of 70s pop bands, self assembly furniture and of course, crime fiction, it pretty much minds its own business. So what a thrill to discover a novel from Sweden, written on a subject that I’m deeply interested in, from a perspective that I’ve seen before.
Before going on, let’s have a quick look at the cover blurb:
Around the time of Jacob’s bar mitzvah, his mother leaves his father for another man, and he is not even Jewish. It’s 1987, the First Intifada is about to start, and the Jewish community in Gothenburg, many of them descendants of Holocaust survivors, is under a certain amount of strain. Jacob relates his family’s break-up in the context of a fragmented diaspora community orientated towards Israel and America with humour and affection. And in the middle of life, there is death. Mendel-Enk’s debut novel is a portrait of a Swedish Jewish community, filled with comedy, tragedy and a zest for life.
Reading the blurb I get a number of things. Firstly, Mr. Mendel-Enk’s novel looks to address many of the world issues and histories that affect Jews as a whole. Secondly, there’s a suggestion that Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! contains a lot of humour. Lastly, I get a sense of charm about this novel. And given that the novel centres around a boy growing up in the Jewish community in Gothenburg, and draws on the author’s own childhood experiences, I’m not surprised that I feel this way. Considering Mr. Mendel-Enk’s background I expect Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! to be insightful and knowledgable, and to contain many colourful characters, because Jewish families the world over contain colourful characters, and I’m sure Mr. Mendel-Enk’s ‘fictional’ family is no exception.
If the cover blurb had failed in giving any sense of the theme of the novel, then its cover absolutely screams it. Created by design partnership Karolina Eriksson, the cover is exquisitely designed, giving a traditional language something of a modern funk. The menorah as the central image is unmistakably Jewish, while the colour scheme hints at the novel’s country of origin. I also like the playful and rather relaxed font that’s been employed for the novel’s title. I think it fits well, and further suggests that there is much humour awaiting any reader who picks this book up.
Interestingly, I discovered that directly translated this novel is called ‘Three Monkeys’ (original title – Tre apor), so quite why the publisher went with Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! is beyond me. It’s certainly more suggestive of theme and it arguably sounds more appealing, so this no doubt has a lot to do with it.
So what of the author of the book himself? Well, Stephan Mendel-Enk was born in 1974 in Gothenburg and he has a background in journalism. Aside from writing for the soccer journal Offside, he has contributed to Sweden’s largest daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter and also appeared on Swedish radio. In 2004, Mr. Mendel-Enk also published a highly praised report which examined masculinity and violence, called With an Obvious Sense of Style.
Interestingly, this debut novel also comes with a debut translator in Michael Lundin. Born in Stockholm in 1967, Mr. Lundin was educated in England, Scotland and Sweden. He currently lives in Brighton. I know nothing more about him.
I have many questions that I hope Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! will answer – how is the Jewish community received in Sweden? How orthodox is the community? How does the community fit in with the rest of Swedish society? – but given that the novel is a slender 140 pages, I’m not sure all of my questions will be answered. Regardless, it’s going to be a delight peeking in on a religious community that I know little about. And given the suggestion that Oh Sweden! Oh Israel! is both humourous and endearing, this is one novel I’m really looking forward to journeying through. I’ll see you at the other end.
Portobello Books | 7th March 2013 | £12.99 | PAPERBACK | 140 PP | ISBN: 9781846274152
*NOTE: In promotion of this book, author Stephan Mendel-Enk will be appearing in an event in London for Jewish Book Week, on Sunday 3rd March. For further details please visit the event page on the Jewish Book Week website.
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’ the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.