Jonas Hassen Khemiri: “Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger”

01/18/2012 § Leave a comment

[Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles]

Here’s the best book of 2011 that you haven’t read: Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s inventive Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger, in which two narrators, Jonas and a man who claims to be his father’s “most antique” friend Kadir, collaborate and clash over both the life story of Jonas’s father, “Abbas,” who went from being a war-orphaned child in Tunisian to a struggling artist in semi-racist Sweden before succeeding (or so he claims) as a photographer. At the same time, Khemiri manages to paint a picture of a nationalistically and generationally divided Sweden with the colorful use of Abbas’s unintentionally broken Tunisian-Swedish grammar (e.g., “just memorize not to inject too many details”) and Jonas’s stylized second-person snapshots (“Then Dads look down on you where you’re Velcroing yourself to their legs”). He’s assisted here by Rachel Willson-Broyles’s flexible translation, which captures the wide palette of tonal shifts needed to maintain — as he did in his outstanding play, Invasion (also translated by Willson-Broyles) — that language itself is what creates reality. His choices in overwrought metaphors (on the same level as David Mitchell at his best) and awkward grammar (ala Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated) are justified by what they reveal: Abbas’s desperation to assimilate (to the extent that he becomes a literal lapdog of the state, as a pet photographer) is undermined by his inability to speak proper Swedish, whereas the Swedish-born Jonas is so offended by his native country’s treatment of his half-blood peers (offensively called “blatte“) that he rebels against the language that comes so easily to him. (At one point, we’re given excerpts from a young and awed Jonas’s notes on the beautiful Swedish language, which makes his later choice to twist and distort it all the more tragic.)

Thanks to the comic structure — and this is a hilarious novel — Khemiri even finds time to both make fun of and defend these choices, explaining the origins of certain motifs (like the recurrence of chestnuts) or particularly flowery sections:

He holds her hand and he smells her lavender odor and it SWOOSHES itself into his brain and the ground begins to vibrate under him, his brain is hazed, the clouds gather, the night sky is crackled with lightning and suddenly a hundred meteors fall from the sky and suddenly the horizon’s fish boats shoot artificial distress lights and sunken choirs of angels sing SYMPHONIC SONGS and organs play at BOOMING VOLUME and STRAY DOGS HOWL and THE AIR LOSES OXYGEN and VOLCANOES ERUPT and UMBRELLA DRINKS CRASH FROM BARS and ACHRAF’S PENCIL BREAKS AGAINST A NEGATIVE and SOMEWHERE IN A N UNDERGROUND RESEARCH ROOM THERE IS A RICHTER SCALE MEASURER THAT RISES AND RISES AND RISES UNTIL THE MERCURY EXPLODES ITS CHAMBER AND SPRAYS ITSELF OUT LIKE OIL AND BLACKENS THE RESEARCHER’S WHITE COATS, THE HISTORICAL FAX MACHINES, AND THE ANTIQUE GREEN-TEXTED COMPUTER MONITORS!!!

(N.B.: None of this happens in reality! This is metaphorical symbolism for your father’s strong emotions during the rendezvous with your mother.)

Ordinarily, novelists work behind and between the lines of the text to keep things connected and on point; Khemiri, in a playfully light rebellion of his own, comes out into the foreground (through Kadir) to explain what he’s doing: “Everything in life can be woven together; life is a coded pattern, and it is our task to crystallize in bookly form those small details that the people of the plurality let pass unnoticed.” Furthermore, by making himself a character and using — perhaps! — elements of his own childhood, Khemiri further blurs fact and fiction into something more; whether these things actually happened or not, is the truth of it any less potent? Couple that one step further with the novel’s choice to steep itself in the reality-capturing profession of photography (which, of course, we know can also be used to lie), and you’ve got layers upon layers, culminating in a series of dueling narratives that leave the son unable to recognize his “traitorous” father and the father unable to recognize his gangster-rapping, D&D-playing, mold-breaking son, even though the shifts between Kadir’s and Jonas’s memories paint them as more similar than either would believe. At one point, Abbas — via a letter to Kadir — explains the magic of photography: “Do you know how one photographs the most delicate portrait of a cup of coffee? One fills the cup with soy sauce filled with a few foaming drops of dish soap. Consequently one escapes the uglifying surface coating!” Montecore doesn’t have a trace of bittersweet soy or inedible soap, and yet it, too, brazenly announces that it’s cheating to arrive at a desired effect: “Photography is a true art because photography can lie.”

If you haven’t guessed by now, particularly since the novel is dealing with conflicting memories, Montecore also deals with my favorite type of narrator, the unreliable one. Many things are claimed and purported — primarily that Kadir is who he claims to be, and not, in fact, who the reader suspects him to be (Abbas) — and although Khemiri certainly implicates a certain side as being more accurate (he is, after all, one of the two primary characters), he wisely leaves it to the reader to sort everything out. More impressive is the mature distance that Khemiri achieves from his (albeit) fictional self, for this allows him to successfully give the father figure elements of redemption, especially with the backdrop of a fractious ’90s Sweden (so there’s a history lesson in here, too). The standard go-to cliche for a many-layered novel that makes you cry would involve comparisons to onions: Montecore deserves better than that, so until hybrid farmers breed an onion to have the surprisingly pulpy texture of a pomegranate, the spiky skin of a pineapple, the nested structure of a podded pea,  and . . . well, let’s forget the metaphor, say this is the sort of novel Nabokov would be proud to display in his library, and get back to reading.

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