FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Tunisian Tiger

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
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail