Tag Archives: Neil Smith

The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith): Kafka in the office

The RoomThis is my second review of a Scandi book this year and we’re only half-way through January. Both prove that it’s not all crime and angst in the chilly north. Jonas Karlsson’s short fable manages to be wacky, funny and thought-provoking all within a very few pages. Set in an open plan Swedish office, it’s about Björn and his conviction that somewhere between the toilets and the recycling bin at his new workplace there’s a small room in which he’s his best self and does his best work. Unfortunately, where he sees a door his new colleagues see a blank wall.

Björn’s two weeks into his job with the shadowy Authority (eliciting the inevitable comparison with Kafka) when he stumbles upon the room. Standing in front of its mirror he notices that he looks considerably smarter, better turned out and somehow more alert. Over the course of the next few weeks he visits it regularly, taking a colleague aside for a confidential chat and even having an erotic encounter in there at the Christmas party. Everyone else insists that he’s spending increasing amounts of time standing next to the wall and they’re not happy. Over the very short course of Karlsson’s novella, Björn goes from office outcast to rising star, but will it last?

Reading Karlsson’s novella will take a couple of hours at most but that feels quite some time to be inside Björn’s head. Arrogant and superior, he’s devoid of all social skills ignoring the friendly overtures of his new colleagues in a manner worthy of The Bridge’s Saga but without the endearing habit of at least trying to understand other people. Despite the menial tasks he’s asked to perform, he’s convinced that his brilliance will be recognised and eventually it is which may well have you grinding your teeth in annoyance along with his colleagues. It’s very funny at times, bringing back cringe-making memories of working in open plan offices with its petty skirmishes about territory and mind-numbing meetings spent crammed in to the senior manager’s goldfish bowl, but it’s also about how those who are different are perceived by the rest of us. Björn’s colleagues are all too keen to have him kicked out for his bizarre behaviour. It’s quite an uncomfortable read at times, but often very amusing one and thought-provoking with it. Quite a feat in a mere 176 pages.