MY LIFE AS A DOG
By Reidar Jonsson
Translated from the Swedish
By Eivor Martinus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 220 pp. $17.95
THIS wonderful coming-of-age novel is alive with energy. Swedish author Reidar Jonsson displays vigorous inventiveness -- or perhaps these events are his own elaborated memories. His young narrator, Ingemar Wallis Johansson, has a survival instinct which keeps him going despite loneliness and loss.
Ingemar relates for us the tragic, hilarious and detailed events of his 13th and 14th years and shares his conclusions. It is the late 1950s. Ingemar and his brother and sister have spent a year in a children's home. Their father is in the merchant marine, somewhere near the equator loading bananas. Their tubercular mother is in and out of a sanitorium. The children are farmed out among relatives and friends, separating them from one another and from their beloved dog, Sickan. The book's title may refer to Ingemar's feeling of being treated as a disposable pet whose wishes are never consulted. Like the Russian space dog he worries about, Ingemar too has been sent out into the unknown without enough nourishment to sustain him.
Hemingway said that courage is grace under pressure. By this definition, Ingemar lacks courage. His forte is evasion under pressure. When pressed down, this kid isn't crushed; he goes off like a watermelon seed which has been squeezed too hard. He endures stress by being suddenly somewhere else. "I am not saying that God is wrong but I have strong doubts about the soul leaving the body when we die. I personally believe that childhood is the true soul and it runs away with the first morning sputnik to God as soon as the torture starts."
In one sequence, Ingemar -- who really only wants a home of his own -- is discovered "playing house" with a neighbor girl. She is the make-believe Indian "Little Frog" to Ingemar's "Jumping Panther." Ingemar hides out in the town dump. While languishing there, he takes the opportunity to search for possible discarded treasure with which to win back a place in his invalid mother's life. His head fills with visions of fame and triumph. The headlines would declare, "Young Hero Sends His Sick Mother to Exclusive Resort in Switzerland."
Presently, finding no valuables, he sits down to read a newspaper story about a pair of professors unearthing evidence of a 16th century regicide. "I read and read for all I was worth, hoping that no one would discover me because even I had forgotten that I was there." An avid reader, Ingemar sometimes feels "that I am just an amalgamation of various characters out of fiction. It's a bit like being a hotel where people check in with all their belongings, but where they don't have to pay the bill as long as they keep me company. It gets a little complicated at times, though."
The 1985 movie version of "My Life as a Dog," co-written by Jonsson, was one of America's favorite foreign-language films of the past decade. This is the first English edition of the book. I cannot comment as to the accuracy of Eivor Martinus's translation, but its easy, colloquial style feels right. Occasional Britishisms -- "football" for "soccer," "vest" for "undershirt," "mum" for "mom" -- add to the sense of a foreign locale.
Those familiar with the simplified, gentle movie will be surprised by the book's wider scope -- and by the many haunting scenes and outrageous events that never made it onto the screen. With its more sensuous but starker vision, the book lacks one thing that the movie supplies -- a glowing remembered scene from which the lonely boy can take comfort knowing he was his mother's delight. The literary Ingemar isn't sure.
Swedish legend has it that Smaland, the rural province where Ingemar is sent to live with his jovial uncle, was created by the sly devil while God was busy with the gardens of Sweden. Discovering too late the rugged, difficult land already fashioned, God is said to have remarked, "I cannot undo what has been done to the land -- but I will make the people." Thus the people there are notorious for being perhaps somewhat eccentric, but capable of prevailing through any hardship. Ingemar could be their patron imp.
Kathryn Morton is working on a collection of essays about stubborness.