Montecore

To those whose experience of Swedish fiction has been as bleak as Nordic winter, Montecore arrives as a sunny revelation. An exuberant account of a son's effort to imagine his vanished father, the novel in fact challenges assumptions about Swedish identity during a time when the face of Scandinavia grows darker. Abbas, the absent figure at the center of the story, is, like author Jonas Hassen Khemiri's own father, a tawny immigrant to Stockholm from Tunisia.

 

The novel is set into motion by an extravagantly malapropian email sent from Tunisia by a man who calls himself Kadir and claims to be Abbas's best friend. Kadir writes to Abbas's son, who, like the author of Montecore, is a novelist named Jonas Khemiri, with a proposal that they collaborate on a book about Abbas. Jonas has been out of touch with his father for eight years, but Kadir, who grew up with Abbas in a Tunisian orphanage, proposes that he and Jonas pool their memories. "Let us collide our clever heads in the ambition of creating a biography worthy of your prominent father!" he exclaims in the magnificently fractured Swedish that spices the entire narrative. They will compile an account of an exuberant, penniless Tunisian who falls in love with a visiting flight attendant. Aided by a loan from Kadir, Abbas follows her to Stockholm, where they marry and raise a family. Unsuccessful at assimilating into Swedish society and earning a living as a photographer, he disappears.

 

Montecore is a story of cultural conflict and frustrated aspirations. Abbas yearns to become Swedish during a time of growing xenophobia, in which a serial killer terrorizes immigrants and Abbas's own studio is vandalized by bigots. Yet the hostility he encounters only strengthens his resolve to blend in and sharpens his scorn for newcomers who cling to foreign ways. It also estranges him from his son who, adopting the racist epithet blatte—cockroach—as a badge of honor, undertakes guerrilla actions against the "Swediots" who spurn him. Unlike Abbas, Jonas dreams of a multicultural utopia, "a new collective without borders, without history, a creolized circle where everything is blended and mixed and hybridized."

 

What is most remarkable about this rollicking tale of failure is its use of creolized language, a mishmash of Arabic, French, and Swedish that Abbas speaks and his son calls Khemirish: "A language that is all languages combined, a language that is extra everything with changes in meaning and strangewords puttogether, special rules and daily exceptions." It is the medium of the macaronic messages that Kadir, who has spent one year in Sweden, sends to Jonas and that Jonas appropriates for their biography of Abbas. Jonas tutors both Kadir and his father in Swedish, but, cutting himself on an old saw, Kadir asks "how difficult is it not to teach an antique dog new techniques?" Yet, with astounding solecisms worthy of Alex, the madcap Ukrainian guide in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated and Vladimir Nabokov's linguistically flustered Pnin, the old dog has a comical bite. Khemirish is a droll medium for exploring split personalities and fragmented cultures.

 

Just as Khemiri's Sweden is a battleground for competing visions of national identity, the text of Montecore is the outcome of a bitter conflict between Jonas and Kadir to seize command of the story. Kadir, who even inserts contrapuntal footnotes, carps at how Jonas renders Abbas's life. "You lack adequate talent," he complains. "You are a miserable make-believe author. You are a PARASITE who has exploited your father in order to shape a FALSE story. You are a disappointment." But it is Jonas who signs off on the book, avenging himself on his antagonist's attacks by exaggerating Kadir's gaffes. To the extent that Kadir's very existence is moot, Montecore enacts a psychomachia, a struggle for control of Jonas's soul.

Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles has succeeded admirably in devising a form of rotten English, a scrawny pidgin that flies as high as Khemirish. Jonas prefaces the lessons he gives Abbas and Kadir in his native language by arguing: "In order to understand the Swedes and their humor and their bizarre manner of discussing the weather and nodding forth their refusal we must understand Swedish." Khemiri's playful Swedish shines through Willson-Broyles's gaudily piebald English. Khemiri's only other novel, One Eye Red (2004), remains unEnglished, and the astonishing international success of Stieg Larsson might account for the fact that Montecore is only now, five years after its debut, available in English. Though Khemiri shares nationality with the late master of murder mysteries, the only crime here is the delay in introducing a major talent to American readers.

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