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Jonas is fresh off the ...
Jonas is fresh off the publication of his first novel when answers to this question come in the form of an unexpected e-mail from Kadir, a lifelong friend of Abbas and an effervescent storyteller with delightfully anarchic linguistic idiosyncrasies. The portrait Kadir paints of Abbas—from a voluntarily mute boy who suffers constant night terrors, to a soulful young charmer, to a Swedish immigrant and political exile—proves to be vastly different from Jonas’s view of his father. As the two jagged versions reconcile in Kadir and Jonas’s impassioned correspondence, we’re given a portrayal of a man that is at once tender and feverishly imagined.
With an arresting blend of humor and wit, Montecore marks the stateside arrival of an already acclaimed international novelist. Winner of the PO Enquist Literary Prize for accomplished European novelists under forty, Jonas Hassen Khemiri has created a world that is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating.
"Funny, ambitious, and inventive. Also black: rage and tragedy pulse beneath the fireworks…a potent chemical mix." —The New York Times Book Review
"A hard-hitting and resonant tale of the modern immigrant experience in Sweden." —The Boston Globe
"Montecore brings a metafictional slyness to the kind of immigrant narrative that many Americans will immediately recognize with its elements of aspiration, disillusion, and filial rebellion...[It's] ambitious in the best sense." —New York Journal of Books
"Montecore deals in the sparkling tropes pf contemporary fiction but very successfully grounds them in old-fashioned familial anguish. With style to spare and a keen take on the political turmoil of a region recently thrown into high-media focus, Montecore shows a young novelist swinging for the fences and hitting hard."
"To those whose experience of Swedish fiction has been as bleak as Nordic winter, Montecore arrives as a sunny revelation. An exuberant account…the novel in fact challenges assumptions about Swedish identity…[A] rollicking tale." —Barnes & Noble
"Montecore is brilliant. Like its title—an invented creolized noun equal parts Arabic, French, Swedish, Siegfried & Roy, and Dungeons & Dragons—Jonas Hassen Khemiri's novel is itself a thrillingly hybrid creature: an immigrant story, a coming-of-age tale, an epistolary epic, an indictment of Swedish racism and nationalism, a meditation on storytelling and translation. . .Above all, however, this is a beautiful novel, a bewitching novel, as funny as it is heartbreaking, as self-aware as it is self-effacing, and certainly the best book that I've read in a long time." —Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing
"[A] vibrant story of culture, class, and family history enlivened by Khemiri’s subtle wit and voice."
"Amusing and multilayered. . .Khemiri adds a distinctive and quirky voice—actually several of them—to contemporary literature." —Kirkus (starred)
A distinguished, linguistically complex narrative that examines the ordeals of a Tunisian immigrant to Sweden.
Swedish authorKhemiri focuses on issues of racism and adjustment to a new life in the putatively progressive atmosphere of Sweden. The narrative structure is both amusing and multilayered, for one of the narrators is named Khemiri, who like the author is the son of a Tunisian immigrant. Another narrative aspect of the novel involves a hilarious commentary on the story of this immigrant, Abbas Khemiri, by his supposed best friend Kadir, who protests mightily against the son's hostility toward his father. Kadir writes in a fractured English (or Swedish in the original) that the translator has captured brilliantly. Jonas, the estranged son (not to be too confused with the author), is alienated from his father's affection and chronicles the downfall of this relationship with keen and sensitive observations. On moving from Tunisia to Stockholm, the father sets up a business of photographing pets, but to try to "pass" in Swedish society he changes his name to Krister Holmström. His embittered son considers his father a "Swediot" for even trying to blend in with Scandinavian society, and Kadir desperately tries to rescue Abbas' reputation—not a particularly easy task, especially when Abbas eventually moves back to Tunisia and becomes a photographer of Tunisian exoticism, convincing women to pose for the "humoristically erotic" Aladdin and His Magic Tramp and 1,000 and One Tights, a shoot in which Mr. Bedouin, the character they make up to compete with Mr. Bean, "is welcomed extra generously in an oasis by seven sex-starved Saudi aerobics instructors." While the novel is at times genuinely amusing, it also explores serious themes of cultural homogeneity, as Abbas eventually feels his son has become "nothing"—neither Tunisian nor Swedish.
Khemiri adds a distinctive and quirky voice—actually several of them—to contemporary literature.
To those whose experience of Swedish fiction has been as bleak as Nordic winter, Montecore arrives as a sunny revelation. An exuberant account of a son's effort to imagine his vanished father, the novel in fact challenges assumptions about Swedish identity during a time when the face of Scandinavia grows darker. Abbas, the absent figure at the center of the story, is, like author Jonas Hassen Khemiri's own father, a tawny immigrant to Stockholm from Tunisia.
The novel is set into motion by an extravagantly malapropian email sent from Tunisia by a man who calls himself Kadir and claims to be Abbas's best friend. Kadir writes to Abbas's son, who, like the author of Montecore, is a novelist named Jonas Khemiri, with a proposal that they collaborate on a book about Abbas. Jonas has been out of touch with his father for eight years, but Kadir, who grew up with Abbas in a Tunisian orphanage, proposes that he and Jonas pool their memories. "Let us collide our clever heads in the ambition of creating a biography worthy of your prominent father!" he exclaims in the magnificently fractured Swedish that spices the entire narrative. They will compile an account of an exuberant, penniless Tunisian who falls in love with a visiting flight attendant. Aided by a loan from Kadir, Abbas follows her to Stockholm, where they marry and raise a family. Unsuccessful at assimilating into Swedish society and earning a living as a photographer, he disappears.
Montecore is a story of cultural conflict and frustrated aspirations. Abbas yearns to become Swedish during a time of growing xenophobia, in which a serial killer terrorizes immigrants and Abbas's own studio is vandalized by bigots. Yet the hostility he encounters only strengthens his resolve to blend in and sharpens his scorn for newcomers who cling to foreign ways. It also estranges him from his son who, adopting the racist epithet blatte -- cockroach -- as a badge of honor, undertakes guerrilla actions against the "Swediots" who spurn him. Unlike Abbas, Jonas dreams of a multicultural utopia, "a new collective without borders, without history, a creolized circle where everything is blended and mixed and hybridized."
What is most remarkable about this rollicking tale of failure is its use of creolized language, a mishmash of Arabic, French, and Swedish that Abbas speaks and his son calls Khemirish: "A language that is all languages combined, a language that is extra everything with changes in meaning and strangewords puttogether, special rules and daily exceptions." It is the medium of the macaronic messages that Kadir, who has spent one year in Sweden, sends to Jonas and that Jonas appropriates for their biography of Abbas. Jonas tutors both Kadir and his father in Swedish, but, cutting himself on an old saw, Kadir asks "how difficult is it not to teach an antique dog new techniques?" Yet, with astounding solecisms worthy of Alex, the madcap Ukrainian guide in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Vladimir Nabokov's linguistically flustered Pnin, the old dog has a comical bite. Khemirish is a droll medium for exploring split personalities and fragmented cultures.
Just as Khemiri's Sweden is a battleground for competing visions of national identity, the text of Montecore is the outcome of a bitter conflict between Jonas and Kadir to seize command of the story. Kadir, who even inserts contrapuntal footnotes, carps at how Jonas renders Abbas's life. "You lack adequate talent," he complains. "You are a miserable make-believe author. You are a PARASITE who has exploited your father in order to shape a FALSE story. You are a disappointment." But it is Jonas who signs off on the book, avenging himself on his antagonist's attacks by exaggerating Kadir's gaffes. To the extent that Kadir's very existence is moot, Montecore enacts a psychomachia, a struggle for control of Jonas's soul.
Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles has succeeded admirably in devising a form of rotten English, a scrawny pidgin that flies as high as Khemirish. Jonas prefaces the lessons he gives Abbas and Kadir in his native language by arguing: "In order to understand the Swedes and their humor and their bizarre manner of discussing the weather and nodding forth their refusal we must understand Swedish." Khemiri's playful Swedish shines through Willson-Broyles's gaudily piebald English. Khemiri's only other novel, One Eye Red (2004), remains unEnglished, and the astonishing international success of Stieg Larsson might account for the fact that Montecore is only now, five years after its debut, available in English. Though Khemiri shares nationality with the late master of murder mysteries, the only crime here is the delay in introducing a major talent to American readers.
--Steven G. Kellman
Posted May 2, 2014