"Montecore" by Jonas Hassen Khemiri [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khermiri, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles
Why This Book Should Win: It has more heart than any other book on the list, it was translated from a slang dialect called “Rinkeby Swedish,” and confronts racism head-on as a huge problem in Swedish society. [Ed Note: And Jonas has amazing hair.]
Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.
Some people may view this book as a sort of lightweight on the longlist, something thrown in to balance out against heavy hitters like Amos Oz and Edouard Leve, among others.
But I think you only have to take a look at the photo that ran with my review of this book in The National to get a sense of how Khemiri has taken serious topics—intense racism (a real-life sniper who targeted immigrants around Stockholm), abandonment by a parent, despair over one’s direction in life—and done the hard work of finding a playful and uplifting way to write about these things, using rigorous technique on both the word level and in terms of overall structure.
Khemiri’s father is Tunisian, his mother is Swedish, and they raised him near Rinkeby, a suburb about five miles outside Stockholm. A 1998 New York Times article offers this snapshot of the place: “More than 50 per cent of Rinkeby’s residents live on full government benefits, and the town has become stigmatised in Sweden as a haven for welfare cheats and a centre of criminal activity. Ill-spoken Swedish is known throughout the country as ‘Rinkeby Swedish,’ used by urban toughs and middle-class youths eager for a little street credibility.”
Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles has turned this language into English full of playful malapropisms, missing words, and broken syntax that is a reflection of the characters’ struggles, not just fun with word-games.
The book is posed as something done reluctantly, a story that had to be dragged out of its author by the sheer exuberance of Kadir, an old friend of the author’s father, or someone pretending to be Kadir who knows quite a lot about Khemiri’s father—enough to make his son interested to learn something new about the man he’s been estranged from for many years.
From here, we get letters and emails between Kadir and Khemiri, as they pass the narrative mic back and forth. The meat of the story is how hard life was for Khemiri’s father as a Tunisian living in Sweden, and the effects racism had on his family’s life.
We’re shown how strong the anti-immigrant movement in Sweden was in the 1990s, culminating with a sniper who terrorized the public. Khemiri’s Dad is quickly run into the ground by depression and hopelessness after his photography studio is burned down.
Kadir would prefer to gloss over all this and tell a happy story instead. “Your father staked everything on relocating his address to Sweden. All for his love for your mother. Never forget that, Jonas.”
Khemiri offers up a few happy scenes of family life, but can’t minimize “the rage that you can feel for a country that’s stolen your dad.” As a teenager, he identifies proudly as “blatte,” listens to gangster rap, and calls his Dad’s attempts to assimilate the acts of “an Uncle Tom black.” Later, adrift and fighting alcoholism, Khemiri’s Dad abandons his family for nearly two years. “Then you say good-by to the understanding and hi to the hate and start to be ashamed when someone asks about your dad,” Khemiri writes. His father returns but it’s too late to patch things up with his wife. “Dads try to say sorry in a bunch of different languages and layer French declarations of love on Arabic nicknames on Swedish forgive me’s but Moms won’t let herself be calmed in any language.”
Montecore offers a serious commentary on Swedish society and it’s to Khemiri’s great credit that he’s able to turn so many painful elements into an enlightening portrait of immigrant life near Stockholm and a deeply compassionate portrait of his father.