A Tiler’s Afternoon

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Set in Uppsala on a grey November Thursday in 1982, A TILER’S AFTERNOON focuses on sixty-five-year-old Torsten Bergman, from the time a morning call awakens him until he finishes work in the evening. The caller, a Finnish plumber named Pentti, tells Torsten about a job that needs doing in an old villa that is being renovated. Torsten, who now works only off the books, is told the address and advised to begin work without worrying about who will pay him.

When Torsten arrives at a house whose four flats are being converted into two, no one is home, the power is off, and he cannot make out what needs to be done. After replacing the fuses, he restores the lights and discovers a bathroom where tiles are shoddily and incompletely laid. Though puzzled by the emptiness of the house and a card on a door that says merely “Sophie K.,” he sets to work tiling the bathroom. During a lunch break, Torsten encounters Stig Clason, a cousin who accompanies him back to work. They are interrupted by Seija, distraught over the fact that she and her two young children have been locked out by her husband. Stig confronts the husband and discovers he is a cousin who has forged expensive paintings and spent time in prison.

Torsten realizes that he has misspent his time tiling the empty house. But time spent reading A TILER’S AFTERNOON is rewarded with a quickened sense of human limitation. The uneventful plot is enriched with the widower Torsten’s fantasies about the mysterious Sophie K. and his recollections of adolescent labor selling newspapers on a train and lust with a girl named Irene in a movie theater. Gustafsson, whose careful craft is worthy of a master tiler, endows his meager story with a sense of being momentous beyond the bounds of its skimpy minutes.