Jonas Jonasson: Nothing as stupid as mankind

November 23. 2022. – 02:22 PM


Jonas Jonasson: Nothing as stupid as mankind
Jonas Jonasson in October 2018 – Photo: Frank May / picture alliance / Getty Images


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Swedish author Jonas Jonasson's new novel, The Prophet and the Idiot, published at the end of September in Hungarian (translation by László Kúnos), is based on the tried and tested Jonassonian scheme: the main characters, Petra, an astrophysicist who predicts doomsday, and Johan, a half-witted genius-chef, embark on cross-country adventures out of a personal desire for revenge. The central theme of the book is corruption, which takes them from Sweden to Italy and to a fictitious banana republic reminiscent of the Hungarian system called ‘NER’, while they stumble into the world's leading politicians at every turn.

The Prophet and the Idiot was published in Sweden in the summer of 2022 and simultaneously released as an audiobook, interpreted by a popular Swedish actor. What has been the reception of the novel and what feedback have you received so far?

Several levels, to start from the end, a couple of weeks ago there was the Annual Bookfair in Gothenburg, which is a folk fest with 100 000 pure readers. During this bookfair I was kind of embraced, because of my latest book. Before that it was well-received by critics, it was No.1 for some time in the biggest bookstore chain. No. 3. “only” all in all. It is a changing time. For the first time, I sell more audio books than physical books.

Did they publish the audio version at the same time as the paperback?

Yes, they did. This is an interesting development, because the guy who is my voice in the audiobook, his name is Stefan Sauk is a famous actor, and he has this great voice as well interprets my book in a great way. I realized that what’s happening is that more and more readers listen to a book during traveling to or from work or something, and not everybody seeks a favorite author or favorite subject, they seek a favorite voice and since Stefan Sauk is such a star, I reckon that I got extra readers/business due to that.

Your first novel, The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, is your biggest success to date, but in an interview you said that The Prophet and the Idiot is your favourite one.

Just 2 weeks ago I was emailed the Hollywood movie not yet executed manuscript for The girl who saved the King of Sweden, my second book. I read that manuscript and said to myself, “yeah, that was a great book, too”. So, along with the 100-year-old man I think I have two favorites, this one, The Prophet and the idiot and the Analfabeten, which is The girl who saved the King of Sweden in English.

The story of The Prophet and the Idiot begins as we meet the idiot, who receives a caravan from his brother in exchange for half of the inherited twelve-room luxury house, which he uses to push the prophet's daughter (who is about to hang herself) down the hill in the other caravan. How did the plot of the book develop? What was the starting point, the first idea?

You know when I start my creative process, I have parallel ideas. The 100-year-old man was about remembering the lousiest century of all times, maybe it will be beaten by this century. And I had the idea that if we remind ourselves of all the mistakes made we tend not to repeat them, and that book sold thus far about 11 million copies and the world is not a bit better place because of that, so my importance in this case is maybe not too high. Then came the idea of my second book. I spend a lot of time in South-Africa since my best friend has lived there for 30 years, and I reckoned that two of the most stupid inventions of mankind met in the 80s in South-Africa: that was apartheid along with the creation of weapon of mass destruction, so there I had another theme and Sweet, Sweet Revenge Ltd had a serious base, a serious undertone of freedom of speech, freedom of arts.

The Prophet and The Idiot deals with global corruption, and I think nothing can be more destructive. So the idea here was to bring corruption into my style of writing and I also tend to seek and find odd characters. I don’t develop the characters that much, they are quite one-dimensional on purpose, but when I let a one-dimensional character meet another one-dimensional character, and they are basically odd, then it starts to sparkle, that’s my goal anyway. And this time I had the corruption theme and I worked a lot with the character of Petra, the doomsday prophet, not to make her ridiculous, but that her analysis should be based on scientific facts, rather than ignorance, stupidity. The stupidity I added through the character of Johan instead. And then I had my serious idea, I had my characters, and from that something happened in my head and I started to create the story.

I wanted to pull my story in recent present time and rewinded the timeline ten years and the one good thing was that the president of America was Barack Obama, instead of Donald Trump – it is hard to make a character out of a president that is already a character himself, you cannot exaggerate Donald Trump, it’s not possible. So I landed in the time when Barack Obama and Pan Gimun and others were in charge rather than now.

You have a friend, who says ‘I don’t know anybody laughing at himself as much as you.’ You are really amused when talking about your own books, stories, and characters. How do you think humour helps and how can it be used as a tool?

There was an Israeli author and society analyst, Amos Oz. He wrote, among other things, a tiny little book, How to cure a fanatique? If I remember it right, his idea is that political leaders need humor and self-distance. If we could add humor and self-distance in political distance, everything would be different. Many years ago I wrote about Allan Karlsson, the 100-year-old-man and I remember a page where the dialogue was something like this: Allan said that any political conflict could be solved by putting the two leaders in a room, and adding a bottle of vodka. Then his friend said, ‘Really? So, you mean that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be solved by a bottle of vodka?’ Then Allan said, ‘Hm, when it comes to the conflict you just mentioned, it might be that more than one bottle will be needed.’ So there is a little Amos Oz in me. A Korean journalist told me I was the No 1 best selling author in South-Korea. ‘Do you think, Mr Jonasson, your humor is typical Swedish?’ Then I thought it over and said, ‘didn’t you just tell me that my humor is No.1 best-selling in Korea?’ Then I thought can it be that humor is the most global thing we have? No matter cultures and such, maybe it is humor that can save the planet.

Photo: Péter Németh Sz. / Telex
Photo: Péter Németh Sz. / Telex

The recent Swedish elections have seen an upsurge in anti-migration forces, with the nationalist Sweden Democrats party set to be more strongly represented in parliament than ever before. The situation in Hungary was similar in April, with the radical far-right party Mi Hazánk entering the parliament. What do you think about this wave and how does it affect the migration issue in Europe?

Of course, I’m worried. If we rewind like 10-15 years, to the refugee crisis in Syria and other crises, Sweden along with Germany (there she is again, A.M.) took responsibility and I would say the debate about Swedish migration is lacking this fact, that if all European countries did the same, we would have shared the responsibility, then no country would have had to welcome too many in too short of a time.

I refuse to say that having too much migration in too short of a time from too many different cultures is trouble-free, but if the government of the receiving country is skillful enough, then they will admit that it is a problem that 15-year-old heroin addict boys come to Sweden and will commit crimes to get money to get heroin. Can we just speak out and say that this is complicated? So that is why the Swedish Democrats are growing, on one hand because of naive political opinion (Oh, we have to take responsibility, etc.) and because of not admitting the problems, and on the other hand because the Swedish Democrats’ pointing out and exaggerating the problems, thus people are not well-informed, but they have to choose one way or another, and it is always easier to understand the problems.

I mean even if we change Somalis against Swedes, it cannot be all uncomplicated if 100 000 Swedes suddenly move into the center of Budapest, I mean, can we please talk about it? And deal with it? Instead of 50% saying ‘Throw the fucking Swedish out!, 50% saying ‘Oh, they are so fantastic!’ Because the truth is almost always somewhere in between.

What do you think is the greatest threat to humanity today? Corruption, nuclear weapons, climate crisis, Russia, Putin himself?

Beautiful choices you gave me. What's worse, cancer or brain tumor? I an sticking with corruption. Among other very-very bad things, corruption might be the worst. Because, for example, here is Trump again. Under Trump, it was not a matter of truth or science, it was about screaming out loudest. So, if I tell a lie and I just tell it loud enough, I win.

I did a huge amount of research when it came to vori, Russian mafia and the tradition of the era of tzar until now, and I sincerely understand why Russia is far from democracy as this is for historical reasons. It doesn’t make it less sad, but that might be an explanation and looking in the rear mirror one can say how could we be so naive, how could we ever think… I mean…on his very first day in an interview Putin said ‘I’m half-democrat.’ What is that? It made the truth prevail as long as my truth.

Maybe Europe needs a Martin Luther King, a Nelson Mandela, a strong character. I think we lack a strong character, and so does the US for sure.

An excerpt:

Shall I tell you how I managed to stay in power for seven years? – There is no violence involved.
- 'I suppose you surround yourself with friends,' said Agnes, and pointed to Günther with her head.
- 'That's part of it.
And the fact that his late wife's brothers and cousins hold all offices (except the chief of police, which Aleko gave to Günther, who always wanted to wear a uniform.) And there is no doubt that Aleko has changed the constitution of the country. More recently, it is also included that the presidential mandate automatically renewed after five years unless the Supreme Court decides otherwise.
- And who is the Supreme Court made up of? – Agnes asked.
- I am the Supreme Court. Who else?

Quite a large part of your book accurately outlines the workings of the NER (Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or the System of National Cooperation) and the kind of governance that has been taking place in Hungary for 12 years. Did you model the pseudo-democratic dictatorship and the president of the banana republic after Hungary?

There are African Banana republics where the leader got 102 percent of the popular votes in a general election. Countries that people fled from by boat, followed by the president prohibiting boats, followed by fishermen protesting, followed by the president prohibiting fishing … Those are countries with no democratic tradition at all. To make something even close to the democracy of countries like that would take generations. It is much easier, and it goes quicker to change a democracy into a Banana republic. Among scary examples in recent years, I lament to say Hungary, Poland, Brazil and – for that matter – the USA of Donald Trump. Among others. Countries where it still isn’t too late. In my home country, the new government, under pressure from the ultra-right-wing party is considering a law where one can get expelled from Sweden if you don’t show “honorable conduct”. A law like that in the hands of extreme nationalists: How could it possibly end in anything but disaster?

Yet we have re-elected a government that carries fewer and fewer democratic signs…

If you allow me to be political, especially the book before this one when it came to freedom of art, freedom of speech, freedom of university policy, I was obviously worried about supposed democracies like Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and at a time it could very well be a repetition, the USA. So that was the subject at the time, we just had elections here in Sweden, the Swedish Democrats will have a majority in the government. It is scary to me that people cannot see behind their rhetoric, that they cannot see that they obviously are not the best choice for democratic development. Having said that, I gave many interviews regarding this book, and of course, I had to answer questions like what I think of doomsday, when the world go under. I’m still very hopeful about mankind, on one hand nothing is as stupid as mankind, on the other hand, mankind has proven that it tends to land on its feet again and again, and I hope and I think and believe that it will be so again. History teaches us that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.

Now we see that it is sad that Great Britain left the EU, it is sad that other countries don’t sign under the basic ideas of democracy, and I think that those countries will miss the EU if they leave it, or have to leave it.
I am not too comfortable commenting on Hungarian politics, because I don't have enough knowledge, but I’m afraid I’m not too wrong about my worries.

Where do you see the way out of this situation for Hungarians? Can corruption be defeated? Can the president of the banana republic ever be defeated?

We must never lose faith. At the moment, the democratic world lacks inspiring leadership. But we have seen brave, peaceful uprisings before. The non-democrats always take things too far, step by step. Until they must close down the internet to stay in power. And closing down the internet is not an easy thing to do. If your questions and my answers still will be legally published in Hungary – then there is plenty of hope.