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Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Montecore: en unik tiger (Montecore: A Unique Tiger)

Norstedts,  2006. ISBN: 9789113015460

Reviewed by Charles Harrison-Wallace in SBR 2008:1

English Translation: Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles. Knopf, 2011. ISBN 9780307270955.

Khemiri’s second full-length novel is aimed exclusively at the internet generation, and cannot remotely be recommended to anyone unfamiliar with e-mail and its appendages. For such readers, and there may yet be some, it would be quite impenetrable; and even for seasoned Googlers and other adepts it is still extremely baffling, although it certainly fascinates. Khemiri is clearly a talented writer, but there are multiple puzzles in deciding precisely what themes are being addressed, and whether the author himself is entirely sure of what he is saying. I was reminded of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

After prolonged head-scratching, I came to the conclusion that one of the main threads is an autobiographical account of the author from his birth in Sweden in 1978 to more or less the time of his twenty-first birthday. Of mixed Tunisian-Swedish parentage, he passes from moody childhood, through naughty pre-adolescence with fellow schoolchildren, followed by rebellious, shoplifting adolescence, to a period of strongly liberal or left-wing political activism in early manhood. The book itself finally perhaps represents yet another stage, where the author distances himself from these earlier phases.

Another thread is a semi-fictional biography of the author’s father, possibly called Abbas. Because of the xenophobia and race hatred Abbas increasingly encounters in Stockholm, he leaves Sweden in 1992 and returns to Tunisia, where he immediately calls on someone named Kadir. He presents himself as a highly successful Stockholm-based photographer, with a large staff of assistants and a clientele which includes Ingmar Bergman and Eddie Murphy. His marriage to Swedish Pernilla, Khemiri’s mother, breaks up. At one point he disappears completely. However, he reappears first as a humdrum photographer of tourists in Tabarka and then finally achieves financial success as a purveyor of Arabic pornographic photographs, circa 1998. Two years after this he leaves Tunisia and embarks on a glittering career as an international news photographer of the calibre and renown of, say, Robert Capa or Cartier-Bresson. He wears a white suit and entertains a large gathering of legendary celebrities in his Manhattan penthouse.

A third strand is an unsuccessful collaborative attempt at creating a biography, via e-mail, of Abbas and his father’s mysterious childhood friend, Kadir. There is a suspicion throughout that Kadir and Abbas are in fact one and the same. Abbas is stated early on not to be the father’s real name. Much of the narration is said to be fantasy. Or is Kadir merely an alter ego of the author?

Fourthly, there is a running critical (i.e. self-critical) commentary on the entire process of the book’s composition. The author is writing his second book: at the same time he is watching himself at work, and making pre-emptive critical comments about his own writing. In an Epilogue, using the persona of Kadir, he protests loudly at many aspects of the finished product, pinpointing numerous textual discrepancies. In particular he queries the book’s title: Montecore, A Unique Tiger. What does this title have to do with any of the book’s content? "Google indicates that Montecore was a white tiger trained by a celebrated duo of tiger tamers, Siegfried and Roy, in Las Vegas... And why is poor Roy attacked and bloodied by Montecore, with half his stomach ripped out in the final scene?" Perhaps the suggestion here is that the white tiger stands for the author’s imagined white-suited father, while Siegfried and Roy represent the author and the author’s alter ego, Kadir. This would mean that the imaginary father has turned on one of his dual creators and exposed his entrails. Kadir continues to rant: "Your talents are inadequate. You are a pathetic, pretend-author. You are a parasite who has exploited your father in order to concoct a FALSE history. You are a disappointment". Finally, on the last page, Kadir (not Abbas!) asserts that he is not the author’s father.

A presentation of the problems inherent in growing up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, with local Swedish demotic xenophobia highlighted in particular. Included here is also a longish passage containing what are, to my mind, some illuminating insights into the use of Swedish words by a polyglot writer.

These threads are almost inextricably intertwined, and disjointedly delivered, mainly in the form of e-mail messages, sometimes with attachments. The internet dialogue is not always complete, and it is not always easy to know which messages are being sent by whom. I suspect that the main appeal of the book would be to committed puzzle-addicts; and the final question is whether unravelling the tangled skein is ultimately worth the effort? The style is very lively and engaging, nevertheless. While there is nothing totally unique in any literature, Montecore is decidedly singular.

Charles Harrison Wallace

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Other reviews in SBR 2008:1

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