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The Rock Blaster

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Being familiar with Mankell's Wallander series, I found this earlier book a nice departure. In it he spends time exploring real everyday working people.
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First published in 1973 in Swedish, The Rock Blaster was not translated into English until 2020, after the late Henning Mankell had established iconic status as a writer of masterful thrillers.  However, those of us who have followed Mankell beyond that series have long been aware of his leftist leanings, his love for Africa most notably Mozambique, and his charitable activities.  So this slim novel featuring a Swedish everyman comes as no surprise.
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Oh, what a gift to have a "new" novel from the masterful mind of Henning Mankell. THE ROCKET BLASTER isn't a thriller: instead, it is a mosaic composed of the shards of an unremarkable man's life--and when the pieces all come together, the portrait formed is haunting and measured. No Mankell fan should miss this novel.
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The Rock Blaster (2020) is the first English translation of veteran and now deceased Swedish novelist Henning Mankell. Originally published in 1973,  The Rock Blaster will introduce many American readers, familiar only  with Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series, to a different side of the author.

The novel opens in 1911 when industrial growth necessitating railway expansion leads to a catastrophic dynamite explosion nearly killing and severely maiming Oskar Johansson, a 23-year-old member of a team of rock blasters.

Do not expect a straightforward chronological plot in which suspense propels readers toward a dramatic conclusion.  Do not expect a plot at all.  In the brief chapter “The Key Words,” the unnamed narrator tells us that Oskar’s story is comprised of “Tiny beads of narrative that string together to form a rosary.” A few sentences later, he tells us, “This account is an attempt to piece together what Oskar never actually said.” The narrator, who began visiting during Oskar’s sixties, attempts to “piece together fragments”—“snippets  . . . delivered accidentally, when Oskar is talking about other things.”

From these accidental snippets, readers come to know Oskar, a self-effacing blue collar worker named after a king, a man who used to play the same childhood games as other children, the man who has been a worker all his life, a rock blaster with a family, a man with “nothing out of the ordinary about him.”  The narrator remarks, “That is where we disagree.”

In a November 1997 Preface to a new Swedish edition of The Rock Blaster, Mankell comments on “ghettos outside Swedish cities” despites Sweden’s attempts to build an equitable nation.  He explains that he has made only the smallest wording changes for the new edition because what he wrote more than a quarter century earlier remained highly relevant.  In 2020, the same remains  true.

Plotless and composed of fragments, The Rock Blaster slowly forms a touching portrait of an ordinary, unforgettable, fictitious, thoroughly convincing man--Oskar Johannes Johansson (1888-1969).

My thanks to Vintage Books/Penguin Random House and to NetGalley for providing an Advance Reader Copy.
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Published in Sweden in 1973; published in translation by Vintage on February 18, 2020

At some point during The Rock Blaster, the protagonist comments that there should be more books like those by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, whose “characters were not in any way remarkable. They were like all the others. But you get to see how much happened in their lives.” The Rock Blaster is Henning Mankell’s contribution to the literature of the Everyman.

Oskar Johannes Johansson identifies himself as a worker, what would now be called a manual laborer. Construction work, rock blasting, whatever comes along. “He belongs to a group that he sees as clearly defined and also clearly segregated.” His father and grandfather were workers. He has had “the same life as everyone else. Brutal swings between having work and being laid off.” Much has changed during his life but he feels he has had no part in shaping those changes. “The worker is a member of his community, but the forces driving and changing society are wielded by others.”

The narrator tells Oskar’s story in snippets, focusing on events between 1910 and 1969, with diversions that examine Oskar’s roots and the contemporaries who influenced his life. A defining moment comes in 1910, when Oskar proclaims himself a socialist and is no longer allowed to live at home. Another occurs in 1911, when he miraculously survives an explosion in a rock blasting accident. He loses an eye and has his eyelids sewn together rather than opting for a glass replacement. He loses a hand and prefers a stump to a hook. Near the end of his life he has three teeth but can’t be bothered to buy dentures because what’s the point? Oskar lives with deterioration and loss, accepts it and even embraces it as life taking its natural course.

Oskar is dating Elly before the accident, but she gets pregnant while he is in the hospital. By coincidence, he ends up marrying Elvira, her sister. They have children. He goes back to work as a rock blaster. He loses his job in the depression, gets a new one after unemployment peaks. He becomes a widower. He tries to comfort a friend who is losing his faculties to a degenerative disease. He loves the location of his inner-city apartment but the building gives way to a new housing project, forcing his relocation to a suburb. Later in life he spends summers on an island, in an old sauna that he has converted to a single room dwelling. He spends his last years recalling what it was like to be young and vigorous.

Like a Moberg novel, The Rock Blaster is the story of an ordinary life. Ordinary but not uneventful, in the way that all ordinary lives are assembled from a series of chance events. Oskar struggles and perseveres. He feels stupid and lonely, but he manages those feelings. Like a hundred billion others in human history, he’s here and then he’s not.

The Rock Blaster explores the role of ordinary people in Swedish society, people who have “only been allowed to speak in murmurs, yet they were the ones doing all the fighting and being beaten.” They are the ones who build society and keep it running, yet they are at the bottom of the pyramid, holding it up so that the rich and powerful can reap a disproportionate share of the benefits. Oskar becomes disenchanted with the Social Democrats because they focus on civil servants, creating unnecessary jobs that are given to people who develop a sense of entitlement, leaving workers behind. Oskar remains convinced that a worker’s revolution will one day come, although he is sad to have missed it. At the same time, he always says hello to his neighbors because he knows he is part of something bigger than himself. “Whether you like it or not, you’re part of it. Just spit in the ocean once. Then you have all the eternity you need.”

The Rock Blaster is Mankell’s first novel, the latest to be translated into English. It shows the ambition and unevenness of a first novel. The Everyman theme is too heavy-handed, as if Mankell didn’t trust the reader to understand the point of creating an ordinary character. He makes his points with needless redundancy. Still, the story is an effective reminder that, while we become spellbound by the lives of extraordinary people, ordinary people are the foundation of society. And in a sense, most people are extraordinary. To persevere after losing a hand and an eye is remarkable, but people do it all the time. To care about others, to be curious about the world and to wonder how it can be improved, are qualities of people who are gifted with compassion. The Rock Blaster reminds us that to be ordinary makes us a part of something extraordinary, something that we change and shape in our small way, even if we feel insignificant and powerless.

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🤔 Compelling working man tale but too fragmented

I started this story looking forward to the tale, written by a favorite author, of a working man's life and times after a terrible work 💥accident in 1911.  What came through of that story was compelling.  Oskar Johansson and the working class men and women in his life lived on the edge of deprivation and despair through the early part of the 20th century and through the economic crisis of the 1930's.  Their constant hard work, physical struggles and poor living conditions made Oskar's support of the socialist movement to win fair treatment understandable, even unavoidable.  And his quiet acceptance that his activism and actions never succeeded in making an impact on the social balance was moving.  Henning Mankell did, in this respect, make a compelling character come alive in the pages of his first novel.

But so much of Oskar's life was either skipped over or told obliquely, in fragments or through the prism of politics.  I also found the constant switch in point of view and time period made the story hard to follow.  For me, the writing style in this early Mankell work did not serve the story justice.   I am a fan of his later Kurt Wallender detective stories and his children's books, but this story missed the mark in most respects for me.

Thanks to publisher Vintage and NetGalley for providing a complimentary advance copy of the book;  this is my voluntary and honest review.
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This isn't Wallander and it' isn't a mystery but it is, arguably, noir.  It's Mankell's first novel, only now translated into English.   Oscar was horribly injured in an accident and this meandering narrative reflects his thoughts not only about that event but also his place in society.  It's an interesting read but so different from Mankell's other work that his fans should give it a try.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.
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This book was written in a very confusing style which  slowed down the pace. It was an interesting look at Swedish working class  and the profession of rocking mining. This leaves me conflicted on how to rate it, in the end it was given a 3 star..
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An interesting look at the life of a man who is changed by an accident at work. The story, although slow at times, gives us a look at the life, decisions, and important events that happen in Oskar's life. This is the first book of Mankell's that I"ve read and although I wasn't completely taken with this one, I really enjoyed his writing style and tone throughout the story.
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An understated novel about the trials of a worker involved in a crippling accident, the Rock Blaster is often poetic, but a largely scattershot narrative often left me feeling too confused to really appreciate the prose. Mankell uses the main character's gruesome injuries to highlight the struggles of the working class, following the character throughout his life as he attempts to deal with his new reality. The main issue is the rapid switch between POVs, timelines, and characters, which honestly left me confused as to who the main character was until a bit of a ways into the novel. 

I have not read any of Mankell's other works, so I can't compare the writing style, but if his other novels are written in a similar manner I would certainly give them a try. I'd just hope for a bit of a tighter plot. 

**I was given a copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group**
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When we first meet Oskar Johansson, it is as the victim of a rock blasting accident. He is only twenty-three years old, and we witness the blast as a terrible black smudge on an innocent worker's life. Yet the reader should withhold their pity before hearing Oskar's true story. He is a man of few words, drumming the index finger and thumb of his remaining hand on the table.

Oskar is an endearing character, but I had a hard time following the timeline and narration of the story. In one thread, there is an ongoing interview between an elderly Oskar and an unknown interviewer. In another thread, a third-person account of Oskar's life is given in present tense. The second thread jumps wildly about through decades of Oskar's life like a montage. We hear about his recovery after the accident, how he met his wife, his political involvement, and other small moments of family life. Yet in sum, I felt that Oskar's outline was never quite clear, as if the author had used a thick-tipped marker. This effect was magnified by Mankell's almost brusquely short sentences and repetition of key phrases describing Oskar.

As a reader, I wished there was more insight into Oskar's thought processes and less of the author telling me that he was an ordinary man with dreams of social revolution. I most remember the mundane scenes of Oskar's daily life: his habits, amusements, annoyances, and random impulses. There was no lack of such rich material, but I felt it was often drowned out by the author's insistence on typifying Oskar.
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Henning Mankells first novel is fiction literary fiction at its best his writing talent his way of drawing us into a mans life the time the place.A man hurt by an explosion a hand severed an eye lost but still Oskar a very young man survives marries has children lives a life.A read that truly brings Oskar and his world alive.Mankells talent was obvious from this first book.#netgalley #knopfdoubleday.
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4 stars

This is Henning Mankell's first novel published only now in English. It is a distinct departure from his Wallander series. I loved the Wallander novels for the most part and was interested in reading this book about a different topic. 

This is the story of Oskar Johansson from his point of view as told to a friend and fishing companion later in Oskar's life. The book alternates between 1911 and later in Oskar's life – about the 1960's. 

As with many of us, Oskar's memories have a way of shifting about; one time he recalls it this way and another he remembers it another way. 

Oskar's story is one of a poor working class man who endures and perseveres following a dynamite blast that nearly kills him early in the 1900's. 

The book is a treatise on what it means to be poor in the early 20th Century. Oskar dabbled with socialism seeing the obvious need for change in the average Swedish worker's conditions. He discusses his first love, Ellie and his subsequent marriage to her sister. Oskar talks about his hopes and dreams and how things turned out to depart from those hopes and dreams.

The book is written in an unusual style. It is not linear. It skips around and is, at times, a little confusing to follow. But is is a remarkable expose on the daily struggle and living conditions for the average working class Swedish citizen. Previously, I did not know much about this period in Swedish life, nor given it much thought. I'm glad I took the time to read this novel – and by one of my favorite authors.

I want to thank NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/Vintage for forwarding to me a copy of this most interesting book for me to read, enjoy and review.
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