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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.
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