In 1991, when I was 14, my father gave me a book to read: Sophie’s World. That book started off so well for me– I was extremely intrigued by Sophie, who receives messages and some letters, and becomes a student to a philosopher. There were many parts of the book that I wasn’t able to grasp at the time, mainly because the writer is fond of metafiction- writing of stories within a story.
I read Sophie’s World once again in university and I was bowled over by the writer’s intellectualism and the novel made so much more sense to me in my early 20s.
It was that amazing experience of reading Sophie’s World that I picked up Gaarder’s book An Unreliable Man.
An Unreliable Man is a rather simple and straightforward story. This time around, there are no philosophical elements of metafiction. (But there is a lot about the history of languages).
This is the story of a lonely man called Jakop. He’s divorced from his wife and has no friends. His only constant companion is Pelle (you will wonder throughout the story of who or what Pelle is).
To kill his loneliness and boredom, Jakop attends funerals. People ask Jakop how he knows the deceased, and so he makes up fantastical stories of how he was connected to the deceased, based on newspaper obituaries and stories he’s read. His powerful use of words and imagination convince others of Jakop’s connections.
He meets Agnes at one of the funerals. He meets her again at another funeral. Being in a small town, he starts meeting the same people at different places, and his lies start to become more preposterous. He starts writing letters to Agnes, and comes clean to her about his lies.
Concurrently with his narrative, Jakop is also fascinated with languages, and his love for words. He loves finding out the origin of words and what they really mean.
Does he get caught out? Why does Jakop feel the need to lie? Is that his way of dealing with loneliness, by convincing himself he was friends with the deceased? And who is Pelle, and what role does Pelle play in Jakop’s life?
Sophie’s World is a classic world over. That book is really a hard act to follow, and so with An Unreliable Man, I could sense that this book will in way reach that kind of reach or depth However, for most parts, I enjoyed this book as a quick, one time read.
The character of Jakop is an interesting one. I started to analyse why he felt the need to make up stories at funerals. Perhaps it was his loneliness that drove him to lie to others, or maybe his unconscious that led him to create false narratives to make himself feel better. Sometimes it would become frustrating because Jakop is indeed very unreliable with his narratives. When is he speaking the truth and when is he lying?
Things did get interesting for me when he starts to realize that lies are getting out of control, and others start questioning his connections to the deceased. There were moments of tension and I really sided with Jakop and sighed with relief when he would get away with it.
The language part was initially really interesting, but then it starts to become repetitive, and I found myself skimming over these parts. It begins to feel as if the writer wants to give us a lecture on the origins of language and how words are formed and connected. So, yeah, this part of the book was very average for me.
Yes, we do find out who Pelle is, and it’s not entirely convincing, but then again, maybe it works for Jakop to have a constant companion like Pelle.
That’s not to say that An Unreliable Man is a bad book or anything. It was a good, quick one time read, but in all honesty, I don’t think I’d be looking out for any of his new books.