First let me start by giving a huge round of applause to the translator of this novel originally published in Swedish, Rachel Willson-Broyles. The first thing I did after finishing this book was to order her other translation, Strindberg's Star. Unfortunately this is the only work by the author thus far translated into English.
On one level this is a familiar story of a hard working fellow, Abbas, from a developing country who falls in love and moves to a wealthy European country. He is a dark skinned Muslim while his adopted country is filled with big blond Christians. Pretending to be tolerant they ignore, distrust and undermine his every effort. Slowly his determination and intelligence shine through and he slowly but surely advances up from the lower rungs of society, advancing as the country's economy advances. But he can see the coming recession and fears that he will be kicked back down the rungs when it occurs. Unfortunately he is right, but the cause is only indirectly economic reversals in the country. The primary cause is primal, ugly, racism. Blaming problems on the other, the immigrants the dark skinned, the non-Christian.
The story of struggling immigrants facing racism is hardly original, though the variations of that story can never to told too often, particularly when the setting is as unusual as this one. The country where he settles is Sweden, renowned for their liberal politics and progressive immigration policies.
But that is not what makes this book so unusual and thought provoking. The book is narrated by two characters: Abbas' eldest son (Jonas) living in Stockholm and Abbas' oldest friend (Kadir), living in Tunisia. The form of narration is a set of writings. Kadir emails Jonas after he learns that Jonas has published his first novel, to reasonably positive reviews. The novel is of course published in Swedish, apparently the only language Jonas knows. Kadir, who writes a clear by highly idiosyncratic Swedish, suggests that the two of them collaborate on a novel about Abbas. While Jonas never actually agrees to the assignment, the book is that collaboration. Jonas has lived his whole life in Sweden but as a dark-skinned other both comfortable within a wealthy country and deeply angry and hurt because he is never considered truly Swedish. His anger is particularly directed at his father, Abbas, who abandoned the family and returned to Tunisia. It is Kadir' role in the collaboration to defend Abbas to his spoiled son, and attempt to explain the Tunisian orphanage life they both led.
As I attempt to peel off the layers of this novel in my review I now reach the most interesting of those layers: language. Growing up in Tunisia Abbas is exposed to Arabic, French, English and for some reason Spanish. From these he innocently weaves a joyously inventive amalgam of different languages he calls Khemirish (his last name is Khemiri). "A language that is Arabic swearwords, Spanish question words, French declarations of love, English photographic quotations, and Swedish puns...A Language where "dacurdo" means "okay" and "herb salt" is synonymous with "really good"...Treatment of illnesses is called "Vicks friction" and to rub in cream is to "Pond-ize." But Sweden isn't Tunisia and nothing is remotely acceptable unless it is spoken in perfect un-accented Swedish. What a major linguistic drag!
And the collaboration continues the linguistic dichotomy faced by Abbas in Sweden. Jonas is simply full of hipness, but linguistically it is tired, two dimensional and utterly without imagination. He has the currently lingo, but that lingo lacks any soul, and is simply an affectation sprinkled on to his grammatically correct Swedish.
Kadir picked up serviceable written Swedish when he stay with Abbas and his family for a long visit. Gamely he carries on his half of the collaboration in that strangled foreign tongue, yet even as he passionately defends the behavior of his friend, that friend's son belittles his Swedish. But it is a melodic, nuanced and completely clear Swedish. It simply follows it own rules. Wondrous examples are included throughout the book, including "the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior." But Jonas is way too angry and full of himself to actually listen to Kadir. It is much easier to belittle his grammar. Finally Kadir has had enough of this linguistic nit-picking. "Your father wrote me in Arabic. I have translated the letters to Swedish. That my linguistic tone could not be modified from its foundation in order to precisely capture your father's phrases is a surprise that we should call entirely expected."
Language as identity, as weapon, as gift. These are discussed in the book, but more importantly, they are lived in the language of the book itself. And I'll end this where I started, with the translator. Simply incredible. To take all of the shades of language and verbal ticks and translate them into a dissimilar language where all, and I mean all, of the jokes and riffs and multilingual phrases just sing. A magnificent translation.
I'll mention that the son's full name is Jonas Khamiri. Same name as the author's. Not sure how far to riff on that one so I'll simply mention it.