This note is to point readers to a fantastic novel that hasn’t received nearly enough attention in this country: Montecore-The Silence of the Tiger by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. This one has everything I look for in fiction: an engaging story, original and multidimensional characters, deeply political themes, painful honesty, roaring humor. On top of that, the writing is incredibly—often uproariously—creative on several levels. And Khemiri plays with form in innovative ways that, for all the innovation, still allow full access for the ordinary reader and stay far removed from the usual apolitical antisocial ironical above-it-all airs so often assumed by metafiction.
Montecore tells the story of a North African (Algerian born, orphaned in the liberation war, raised in Tunisia) man who moves to Sweden after he and a Swedish woman fall in love. They marry and raise a family, and it’s the firstborn, a son who grows up to become a writer, who’s mostly, or may or may not be, one of the narrators of the father’s story, along with someone who may be the father’s oldest friend, may be the father himself, or both, or neither.
The story—of the father, Abbas, a photographer, and his son, Jonas—is in its essence the story of racism in Sweden, and of the hard lives of immigrant workers trying to survive in the face of this most unwelcoming society. How this racism, in the early years barely camouflaged behind the society’s bland herring-and-snow exterior and later bursting out into organized mass murderous violence against African, Asian and Latin American immigrants, stymies Abbas’s every attempt to pursue his artistic dreams. (What an artist he is! I’m crazy about his series of photographic depictions that capture the essence of Sweden: photo after photo of frozen stripped bicycles toppled over into ice heaps, frozen piles of vomit on snowy sidewalks, and the like.) And it’s about how this racism creates in his son as he comes of age all the rage and will to rebel against oppression that the father spends nearly his whole adult life suppressing. And how it alienates, heartbreakingly, the two from each other.
It’s also a story about language, first languages and adopted languages, about words and communication, and how deeply all this is tied up with identity, in particular national identity, and how language is a weapon in the hands of the smug racist majority forcing the immigrant minority always into outsider status. Khemiri is brilliant at weaving in, frequently with wild hilarity but also, increasingly as the story proceeds, with piercing poignancy, Abbas’s endless and endlessly futile attempts to master Swedish, and of course we’re also made to see that he could have become utterly fluent and it still would have made no dent in that racist walls that press in against him more and more.
In this regard, I must do something I too often forget: hail the translator. Rachel Willson-Broyles does some amazing work here. She somehow manages to take Khemiri’s novel, written in Swedish and full of twisty-turny language, malapropisms, tricky turns of phrase, and both explicit and implicit commentary on the Swedish language, its racist uses, its relation to the anti-racist struggle, etc., and convey all that in English.
Two other points. One is that in recent years we’ve been so inundated in this country with Swedish mysteries, suspense novels, detective novels, we’re so overwhelmed with supposed evidence of that country’s writers’ excellence in this genre, that a deeply literary political novel that exposes some of the most important truths about the deeply racist horrors in that country is very very welcome. I’m grateful that this one was translated and published here, and I hope more of Khemiri’s work soon will be. The other point, perhaps obvious but still needs to be said, I think, is that although Montecore is about a North African immigrant to Sweden and the racism he encounters there, it could just as easily be about the United States and immigrants here from any number of countries. Every word of it will ring true to anyone who has lived this experience, knows someone who has, or has the slightest awareness of the anti-immigrant racism that the U.S. ruling class has so assiduously whipped up over the last two decades or so. So Khemiri has, in my view, not only stripped away the lovely lies about lovely snowy Sweden, he has also provided an accurate assessment of commensurate horrors in the United States.