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Book Review

Assimilation, identity, and the immigrant experience

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
March 8, 2011

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‘Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger’’ is Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s second novel and his first to be translated from Swedish into English. An award winner in the author’s native land, “Montecore’’ comprises letters exchanged between a young man with the author’s name, Jonas Khemiri, who is the son of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother, and an older Tunisian man claiming to be Kadir, who was best buddies with Jonas’s father back in Tunisia. Kadir urges Jonas, a budding novelist, to write a hagiography of his now-estranged father, for whom he chooses the name “Abbas.’’ He wants Jonas to chronicle Abbas’s heroic struggle to become a professional photographer in Sweden. Of course, Kadir may in fact be Jonas’s father Abbas.

The book’s clunky title appears to be in the service of heavy-handed symbolism. Montecore was the performance tiger that severely injured Roy Horn, of entertainment duo Siegfried and Roy. In Khemiri’s novel, Abbas can be likened to a potentially fearsome being that chooses to remain silent while Swedish society marches him through a nearly lifelong circus of indignity.

Gimmicky premise aside, “Montecore’’ often proves a hard-hitting and resonant tale of the modern immigrant experience in Sweden. It’s also pretty funny. Jonas observes that his father speaks “Khemirish,’’ which he defines as “[a] language that is all languages combined, a language that is extra everything with changes in meaning and strangewords put together, special rules and daily exceptions.’’ Thanks to translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, Khemirish retains its idiosyncrasies. “Aziz was responsible for the music,’’ recounts Kadir of opening night at Abbas’s photography studio, and “soon the volume was levitated and the party was our fact.’’

There is a discomfiting aspect to Khemirish. A reader tickled by Abbas’s linguistic infelicities, malapropisms, neologisms, and his grandiloquent verbiage cannot escape association with the condescending Swedes who find him buffoonish. Khemiri depicts those who consider Abbas amusing as supercilious and even racist, yet he often makes Abbas out to be an Arab bumpkin.

The most potent element of this novel is its exploration of how the fraught issue of identity divides the closest of kin. In Kadir’s letters, Abbas emerges as a model immigrant whose ambition to become a professional photographer in his adopted country, together with his determination to never infect his son with “outsiderness,’’ impels him to strive for complete assimilation into insular Swedish society. But in Jonas’s account, his father effaces his identity in a humiliating quest to ingratiate himself with people who will never consider him their equal.

Kadir and Jonas address the fallout of Abbas’s deferential behavior: Jonas’s disillusionment with his father. Naturally, their perspectives differ radically, and this infuses the story with finely tuned dramatic tension. Kadir’s version has Abbas despairing at his son’s embrace of anti-establishment subcultures and friends, which he perceives as foolish and self-isolating. But in Jonas’s description of his actions, he knowingly treads a path taken by many who have been shunned and discriminated against. What could torment a father more than knowing that his son is ashamed of him? What could enrage a son — especially one marginalized by his peers and determined to assert himself — more than a meek and submissive father? The interplay between the two very different men, deeply moving even during the most comical moments, holds Khemiri’s rather chaotic story together. Through the saga of Abbas and Jonas’s stormy relationship, which constitutes the heart of “Montecore,’’ Khemiri demonstrates a fascinating paradox: remaining silent even as one endures injustice is at once stoic and cowardly, as is seeking self-affirmation in wholesale belonging to or separation from any mainstream collective.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail.com.

MONTECORE: The Silence of the Tiger By Jonas Hassen Khemiri

Translated, from the Swedish, by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Knopf, 311 pp., $26.95