FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Tunisian Tiger

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s audacious Post- Post-Colonial novel, Montecore, focuses on the troubled relationship between a father and his son and that father’s life-long friend.

Abbas, the father, and his friend, Kadir, grew up in Tunisia, but the former immigrated to Sweden as a young man, married a Swedish woman, Pernilla, who bore him three sons, including the first, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, also the author of the novel. The narrative begins after Jonas has already become a successful writer and his father an internationally celebrated photographer. As Jonas waits for a party to begin in New York City where his father will be honored for his extraordinary career, Jonas receives an email from Kadir, which begins a dialogue between the writer and his father’s oldest friend.

The intent of that correspondence? To repair the gap that has widened between Jonas and his father and convince Jonas that he should write a novel about his father’s remarkable life. The “novel” that results collapses biography with fictive invention and unforgettable language, a popperie of intentionally garbled translation (or “grammatical glides,” as one character remarks), comic scenes, hip-hop culture, and political rhetoric. Father and son have become estranged from one another because of their differing attitudes about Sweden’s treatment of immigrants from North African countries.

But let’s start at the beginning. In 1962, Abbas and Kadir meet in an orphanage in Jendouba, when Abbas shows up undernourished and mute, traumatized by political unrest in the country. Abbas eventually regains his speech, and after they grow up, the two boys leave the orphanage, when Abbas begins an apprenticeship to a Greek photographer, Papanastasopoulou Chrysovalanti. Kadir works in a cookie factory and, in 1972, the two young men leave for Tabarka, on the coast, where Abbas meets Pernilla Bergman, falling in love with her. These events are all quickly fore grounded, concluding with Abbas’ success as a young photographer, his correspondence with Pernilla once she returns to Sweden, and his eventual departure for Sweden on a false passport so he can marry her.

All of these early scenes are described through Kadir’s fractured language—an incredible challenge for Rachel Willson-Broyles, who translated Montecore from the Swedish—replete with verbs such as unlawfulized, photoed, interpellated, Velcroing, and hundreds of others. Yet the comic language does not mirror what happens to Abbas in Sweden, beginning with Pernilla’s own family who refuse to have anything to do with their daughter’s husband. It’s language—mastering the Swedish language—that particularly traps Abbas, as Jonas observes, growing up with a Swedish mother and a Tunisian father: “A language that is all languages combined, a language that is extra everything with changes in meaning and strangewords put together, special rules and daily exceptions. A language that is Arabic swearwords, Spanish question words, French declarations of love, English photography quotations, and Swedish puns.”

Worse, Abbas can’t get a decent job. Even after waiting years and saving every penny to open his own portrait studio, he encounters racism virtually every time he turns around. The Sweden that Jonas describes during the 1970s and 80s was unaccepting of “foreignness.” Abbas’ dark hair was an immediate give-away. Snubbed, threatened, cursed, and ignored, he finally changes his name and sets himself up as a photographer of pets, wasting his remarkable talents in order to earn a living. “Being an outsider is an infection,” he concludes, yet Abbas still does everything he can to be accepted by the people around him, insisting, on one occasion, “I am Swedish. I have passed half my life here.”

Jonas’ path is the exact opposite. Since he identified the racism all around him when he was still a child, as a teenager he hangs out only with other immigrants, and does everything he can to reject Swedish ethnocentrism. He even works with a fringe group that attempts to strike back at Swedish racism. There are implications that the country is replete with what Stieg Larsson fought against much of his life: skin-heads, neo-Nazis, right-wing fanatics. Then, as if Abbas has finally seen the light, he abandons his family, leaves Sweden, and returns to Tunisia where he makes a fortune—to put it rather nicely—as a pornographic photographer with an Orientalist touch.

There’s still a long way to go in Abbas’ redemption and critical fame as an artist, but I will leave that for the reader to discover. To get there, we are blessed with Rachel Willson-Broyles dazzling translation, recreating Kadir’s magical voice and Jonas’ youthful distance and automatic distrust of people of his father’s generation. And the title—Montecore? Well, yes, the celebrated tiger, trained by Siegfried & Roy. If you remember, Montecore attacked Roy, during a performance of their act. Khemiri’s novel is sub-titled “The Silence of the Tiger.” And Khemiri’s novel is narrated by Kadir and Jonas, with no contemporary voice from their subject: Abbas.

Go figure.

Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger
Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Alfred A. Knopf, 311 pp., $26.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
Robert Koehler
War and Poverty: A Compromise with Hell
Mike Bader – Mike Garrity
Senator Tester Must Stop Playing Politics With Public Lands
Kenneth Culton
No Time for Olympic Inspired Nationalism
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Final Days of the Regime
Irene Tung – Teófilo Reyes
Tips are for Servers Not CEOs
Randy Shields
Yahoomans in Paradise – This is L.A. to Me
Thomas Knapp
No Huawei! US Spy Chiefs Reverse Course on Phone Spying
Mel Gurtov
Was There Really a Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations?
David Swanson
Witness Out of Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
George Brandis, the Rule of Law and Populism
Dean Baker
The Washington Post’s Long-Running Attack on Unions
Andrew Stewart
Providence Public School Teachers Fight Back at City Hall
Stephen Cooper
Majestic Meditations with Jesse Royal: the Interview
David Yearsley
Olympic Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail