Reviewed by Dominic Hinde in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
Dimitris Alevras is, at first sight at least, merely the latest in a long line of Swedish writers with immigrant backgrounds who have attempted to write the histories of their parents into the Swedish canon. He is also part of a group of contemporary authors – most notably, perhaps, Daniel Sjölin – who have used the form as a framework for telling stories based on reality and self-exploration, albeit not always in a straightforward manner.
Världens sista kväll is more than a recollection of a family’s past, though; Alevras’ debut novel engages with the common story of the poor economic migrant in wealthy Sweden and the associated cultural issues, but adds new dimensions to an already established and over-written genre.
Its main character and narrator, Simos, is a political refugee from Hungary. His father, also called Simos, is the son of Greek partisan fighters exiled in the Eastern Bloc. Functioning as a mirror of Alevras’ father’s own experiences (though not entirely factual), this work of migrant fiction is unintentionally topical, given the current political climate in a Sweden divided by an influx of refugees fleeing the Middle East. Constantly present at the centre of Alevras’ novel is the ambivalence of the promised land towards its new citizens.
Within Alevras’ book is another, half-written work by his own father, a science-fiction manuscript (in the existentially-tinged European tradition as opposed to American pulp sci-fi), submitted with an application to the Swedish Film School. The title is lifted from Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Last Night of the World’. This makes Alevras’ debut significantly more high-concept than many others of the same generation, and though the straight narrative of the escaping Greek father Simos is interspersed with both the film script and a series of letters, Alevras does not let a need to innovate become all-consuming.
This does not mean that Världens sista kväll is an easy read. The short story from which it takes its name is just six pages long, but Alevras’ narrative extends over several decades and countries. What remains from Bradbury’s story is an existential ambivalence about the end of a life, and of the novel itself in the face of inevitability. It is a view of life that places characters in deep time without diminishing the significance of lives lived.
By attempting to reconstruct a life rather than give it a basic linear narrative, Alevras seeks to engage with the idea of people as producers of things; one of the book’s central concerns is the way in which the organs of the Swedish state define and record a person, first as a political refugee, and then within the healthcare system. By exploring how documentation constructs narratives of people’s lives, it becomes an investigation of a pre-digital past where people seldom became visible save in the filing cabinets of the world’s bureaucracies.
Ultimately, Världens sista kväll is an interesting novel by a debutant who writes in a considered and slow-paced manner in keeping with the long fade-out of its subject. Alevras has an obvious talent, and one which might well sit better outside the constraints of Nordic autofiction than within. The Last Night is engaging and has moments of real authorial poise and clarity, but it often feels as if it is more important to its author than to its reader. As with so many of Alevras’ contemporaries, an exploration of family history uses interesting source material but carries with it its own limitations and is unlikely to form the basis of an entire literary career. Alevras writes well, and given time may yet find a story to match his skills.