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Montecore Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 1, 2011
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Abbas Khemiri’s friends include Bono, Kofi Annan, and Salman Rushdie. He’s the greatest photojournalist of his time, illuminating the plight of the world’s poor and powerless, but he began life as an orphan in Tunisia. His “antique” (i.e., oldest) friend, Kadir, emails Jonas, Khemiri’s Tunisian-Swedish son, a novelist, to propose that they collaborate on a biography of Jonas’ famous father. Kadir is insistent, but Jonas is reluctant—he hasn’t seen his father in nine years. Jonas and Kadir begin a correspondence that conflicts in both substance and style. Kadir’s accounts of Abbas are admiring, and his writing is buoyant and often funny. Jonas’ memories are critical and laced with irony and rage. But both ultimately focus on racism and nativism, the “smothering set of prejudices” in Sweden that defied Abbas’ efforts to fit into Swedish society, support his family, and keep Jonas from feeling that he’s an outsider. Montecore will startle many American readers who know little of the anti-immigrant sentiments that have been fomenting in Sweden since the 1990s. An illuminating and involving novel. --Thomas Gaughan
"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)
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On one level this is a familiar story of a hard working fellow, Abbas, from a developing country who falls in love and moves to a wealthy European country. He is a dark skinned Muslim while his adopted country is filled with big blond Christians. Pretending to be tolerant they ignore, distrust and undermine his every effort. Slowly his determination and intelligence shine through and he slowly but surely advances up from the lower rungs of society, advancing as the country's economy advances. But he can see the coming recession and fears that he will be kicked back down the rungs when it occurs. Unfortunately he is right, but the cause is only indirectly economic reversals in the country. The primary cause is primal, ugly, racism. Blaming problems on the other, the immigrants the dark skinned, the non-Christian.
The story of struggling immigrants facing racism is hardly original, though the variations of that story can never to told too often, particularly when the setting is as unusual as this one. The country where he settles is Sweden, renowned for their liberal politics and progressive immigration policies.
But that is not what makes this book so unusual and thought provoking. The book is narrated by two characters: Abbas' eldest son (Jonas) living in Stockholm and Abbas' oldest friend (Kadir), living in Tunisia. The form of narration is a set of writings. Kadir emails Jonas after he learns that Jonas has published his first novel, to reasonably positive reviews. The novel is of course published in Swedish, apparently the only language Jonas knows. Kadir, who writes a clear by highly idiosyncratic Swedish, suggests that the two of them collaborate on a novel about Abbas. While Jonas never actually agrees to the assignment, the book is that collaboration. Jonas has lived his whole life in Sweden but as a dark-skinned other both comfortable within a wealthy country and deeply angry and hurt because he is never considered truly Swedish. His anger is particularly directed at his father, Abbas, who abandoned the family and returned to Tunisia. It is Kadir' role in the collaboration to defend Abbas to his spoiled son, and attempt to explain the Tunisian orphanage life they both led.
As I attempt to peel off the layers of this novel in my review I now reach the most interesting of those layers: language. Growing up in Tunisia Abbas is exposed to Arabic, French, English and for some reason Spanish. From these he innocently weaves a joyously inventive amalgam of different languages he calls Khemirish (his last name is Khemiri). "A language that is Arabic swearwords, Spanish question words, French declarations of love, English photographic quotations, and Swedish puns...A Language where "dacurdo" means "okay" and "herb salt" is synonymous with "really good"...Treatment of illnesses is called "Vicks friction" and to rub in cream is to "Pond-ize." But Sweden isn't Tunisia and nothing is remotely acceptable unless it is spoken in perfect un-accented Swedish. What a major linguistic drag!
And the collaboration continues the linguistic dichotomy faced by Abbas in Sweden. Jonas is simply full of hipness, but linguistically it is tired, two dimensional and utterly without imagination. He has the currently lingo, but that lingo lacks any soul, and is simply an affectation sprinkled on to his grammatically correct Swedish.
Kadir picked up serviceable written Swedish when he stay with Abbas and his family for a long visit. Gamely he carries on his half of the collaboration in that strangled foreign tongue, yet even as he passionately defends the behavior of his friend, that friend's son belittles his Swedish. But it is a melodic, nuanced and completely clear Swedish. It simply follows it own rules. Wondrous examples are included throughout the book, including "the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior." But Jonas is way too angry and full of himself to actually listen to Kadir. It is much easier to belittle his grammar. Finally Kadir has had enough of this linguistic nit-picking. "Your father wrote me in Arabic. I have translated the letters to Swedish. That my linguistic tone could not be modified from its foundation in order to precisely capture your father's phrases is a surprise that we should call entirely expected."
Language as identity, as weapon, as gift. These are discussed in the book, but more importantly, they are lived in the language of the book itself. And I'll end this where I started, with the translator. Simply incredible. To take all of the shades of language and verbal ticks and translate them into a dissimilar language where all, and I mean all, of the jokes and riffs and multilingual phrases just sing. A magnificent translation.
I'll mention that the son's full name is Jonas Khamiri. Same name as the author's. Not sure how far to riff on that one so I'll simply mention it.
I am now on a hunt for everything Khemeri has written. I rarely make predictions, but thinking of this author as a future Nobel prize winner doesn't stretch the imagination.
If there is a prize for translator, then the translator of this book deserves the prize. She is one of the reasons that this book is not a page-turner; it's a stop-and-marvel book and a stop-and-ponder book.
I read this book when it was brand new and have recommended it to all my friends ---- but asking my US friends to read books by a Swedish-Tunisian author is a futile task. They have no idea what they are missing.
Abbas came to Sweden without a krona to his name or an identity beyond orphan as he fell in love with a flight attendant. With money lent from Kadir, Abbas follows his beloved to Stockholm, where like a Cinderfella they marry and raise a family. However, the North African fails to adapt to life in Sweden and worse is unable to support his family as a photographer as xenophobic Swediot bigots vandalize his studio. Frustrated in his attempts to fit in while his son taunts him, he gave up and disappeared only to become world recognized as a superstar in New York.
This is an excellent look at modern Swedish society's so called melting pot in which one prime ingredient is acceptable in the stew; though this could be just about anywhere with few true international cities. The story line is driven by Kadir and Jonas who share commentary on Abbas. However, what makes the novel superior is the Tunisian-Swedish dialect (incredibly translated into English by Rachel Willson-Broyles) as readers will believe Abbas is a real person whose journey from frightened child to world accolades starts in Tunisia, goes to Sweden and ends in New York.