x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Words of my father: Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Montecore

In vibrant, broken vernacular, Montecore explores the racial tensions lurking beneath the surface of Swedish society and a forgiving portrait of an absent parent.

Police cordon off an area after riots in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, in June last year. The two-day battle was inflamed by racial tensions in the largely immigrant area.
Police cordon off an area after riots in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, in June last year. The two-day battle was inflamed by racial tensions in the largely immigrant area.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, the son of a Tunisian father and Swedish mother, was raised in the vicinity of Rinkeby, a suburb 13 kilometres outside Stockholm. A 1998 New York Times article offers this snapshot of the neighbourhood: "More than 50 per cent of Rinkeby's residents live on full government benefits, and the town has become stigmatised in Sweden as a haven for welfare cheats and a centre of criminal activity. Ill-spoken Swedish is known throughout the country as 'Rinkeby Swedish,' used by urban toughs and middle-class youths eager for a little street credibility." These facts drive much of the conflict in Khemiri's second novel, Montecore, which takes place in the suburb in the 1990s, and which narrates the life-story of the author's immigrant father in a literary approximation of Rinkeby Swedish, rendered into English by Rachel Willson-Broyles, full of playful malapropisms, missing words, and broken syntax.

Yet the book's success hinges almost entirely on the voice of a supporting character named Kadir, whose enthusiasm and mockery prevent things from falling into melodrama. It's Kadir's voice that we hear first, a stereotype of an eager-to-please foreigner: "Hello, dear reader, standing there skimming in the book boutique! Let me explicate why time and finances should be sacrificed for this particular book!" He then baits the plot's hooks, promising the amazing adventures of "the world's best dad, and superhero of this book," a man who hobnobs with Salman Rushdie and the photographer Richard Avedon. Kadir's sales pitch ends with a Dickensian flourish: "How was this cosmic success reached by a paltry, parent-free boy? Invest your ticket immediately in the book's journey and you will learn!"

Kadir and Khemiri's father, we soon discover, met in a Tunisian orphanage. As an adult, Kadir is a gambler, a bad poker player whom Khemiri remembers from his childhood as a "woman-hungry compliment sprinkler in a violet suit." He thrusts himself into Khemiri's life by e-mailing him "to interpellate if you have been given the gift of any news of your father". It emerges that Khemiri and his father are estranged ("Is your relation as tragically silent as it has been for the past eight years?", Kadir asks).

Eventually Kadir proposes that he and Khemiri should "collide our clever heads in the ambition of creating a biography worthy of your prominent father. Let us collaborate in the production of a literary master opus that attracts a global audience, numerous Nobel Prizes, and possibly even an invitation to Oprah Winfrey's TV studio!" Khemiri resists the plan, but Kadir wins him over by promising "the truth about your father" and assuring him that the book will help him to understand how his father came to be plagued by a "cyclical darkness that would disturb his later life".

So begins an account of the truth and legend of "the world's best dad", narrated in lively, duelling fashion, with Kadir grousing about Khemiri's side of the story, first from the footnotes, later in direct address, whenever Khemiri focuses too much on reality or ugly truth: "Remember: We are maximizing the mysticness of the story, not degrading it."

We learn that Khemiri's father, Abbas, met his mother, a Swedish airline attendant named Pernilla, in Tunis and followed her to marry and settle in Stockholm. Khemiri is born, followed by twin brothers. Abbas dreams of supporting his family as a world-famous photographer with his own studio, but he runs up against the hard fact of Sweden's race problems. A sniper is targeting non-whites. There are rallies against skinheads and immigrant-owned businesses are torched.

Kadir would prefer it if all this got less attention in their collaborative book. He stands by Abbas and his personal struggles. "Your father staked everything on relocating his address to Sweden. All for his love for your mother. Never forget that, Jonas." Khemiri does offer some scenes of the family in happy times. He even references the special language that he shared with his father: "You borrow Grandpa's car and have a winter picnic by the lake Trekanten. You slide around on the ice together and play Bambi and drink hot chocolate way too fast from the Thermos and so you get that special rough tongue that in Khemirish is called 'picnic tongue'. Even though it's wintry cold, Moms have green sunglasses, which are as big and round as boat windows, and over their hair are the thin shawls, which you can borrow and put over your eyes so the smell is Moms' and your nose is coldly rough and the world is light blue with gold stripes."

All the same, the adult Khemiri cannot minimise "the rage that you can feel for a country that's stolen your dad". He has grown up to identify proudly as "blatte," listens to gangster rap, and calls his father's attempts to assimilate the acts of "an Uncle Tom black". Abbas falls into depression, beset by racism, the suspicion of his in-laws, and fights with his teenaged son who quotes the Quran at him to shame him into remembering where they came from.

Kadir tells Khemiri that his father once said: "My sons must not be attracted to being outsiders. This shall be my life's true priority!" Yet after his fights with Khemiri intensify, Abbas laments to Kadir: "My son is a sad figure who lacks culture. He is not Swedish, he is not Tunisian, he is nothing. He is a constant cavity who varies himself by his context like a full-fledge chameleon." Kadir asks: "Aren't you too?" Abbas replies: "Yes! But for me it is a proud prestige. I am a free cosmopolitan! But for my son this is a shame."

Later, adrift and fighting alcoholism, Abbas leaves his family for nearly two years. Khemiri recalls himself struggling to understand. "Then you say good-by to the understanding and hi to the hate and start to be ashamed when someone asks about your dad." His father's attempt to reconcile leads to divorce. "Dads try to say sorry in a bunch of different languages and layer French declarations of love on Arabic nicknames on Swedish forgive me's but Moms won't let herself be calmed in any language."

The book's title is also part of the language games. "Why have you named the document Montecore, by the way?" Kadir asks Khemiri. "Perhaps you have spelled wrong? Do you want to refer to the manticore, the lion monster from your role-playing? Or is Monte Corps intended, as the army of the mountain? Or Monte-cœur, as in the heart of the mountain?" Khemiri avoids answering, saying only that "Montecore was a white tiger that was trained by the celebrated tamer duo Siegfried de Roy in Las Vegas." In the end, however, we can see that Khemiri's wordplay and deliberately odd narrative, even in English translation, clearly offers a serious commentary on Swedish society. And it is to his credit that he is able to turn so many painful elements into an enlightening portrait of immigrant life near Stockholm and a deeply compassionate portrait of his father.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.