Le Droit à la Différence

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Everything I Don’t Remember

Scribner, 320pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781471155079

reviewed by Jude Cook

Very early in the new novel by Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Kehmiri, one of its many narrators anticipates the questioning that will follow when he reveals his real name to the protagonist, Samuel: ‘How Swedish do you feel? . . . Are you whole or half?’ It’s a question that resonates through the entire novel, though on many occasions not explicitly.

Insecurity about a coherent identity is merely a background hum; a tinnitus of vulnerability heard underneath the hubbub of everyday life. It’s a prevailing atmosphere of ill will, suspicion and imprecation, aimed at the book’s many mixed-race characters. Context is all, of course. Khemiri asserts that these characters aren’t living in a diverse, tolerant democracy but in one that is becoming less liberal and multicultural by the year – perhaps even more so, now that Europe is set to be destabilised by Britain’s shock exit from the EU. The paranoia felt by the narrator – whose name is Gurpal Vandad – is very real:

‘What did you say? Vamdad? Vanbab? Van Damme? Oh, Vandad. What kind of name is that? What does it mean? Where are your parents from? Did they come here as political refugees? . . . Do you eat pork? . . . Can you go back?’

This expected interrogation is not forthcoming, however, as the elusive Samuel is also mixed race. But the emphasis on names is significant. In the book, discrimination is dismayingly ubiquitous if you have a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding name. It’s a state of affairs that cannot lead anywhere good, as Khemiri shows by subtle example and slow accumulation of evidence.

In fact, the book – recipient of the August Prize, Sweden’s equivalent of the Booker – is an intricate puzzle, a fictional maze or jigsaw puzzle. With a host of untrustworthy narrators, over a series of shifting, elliptical episodes, the fluid nature of identity and citizenship is thoroughly explored. Class, racism, bigotry, alienation, isolation and the notion of The Other (or La Différence, as the French would say) are examined and dramatised, as well as the ethics and economics of immigration and integration.

The novel’s frame is a series of interviews, conducted by an unnamed interrogator, in pursuit of the truth about the death (ostensibly in a car crash) of Samuel, a young man of mixed North African descent who worked, ironically, for the Swedish Migration board. The interviewees are many and various – old friends, lovers, casual acquaintances, family members. All are seemingly contradictory. A man in his time plays many parts, but Samuel seemed to have played too many. Was he a responsible bureaucrat or a hard-partying wild card? Was he a loyal boyfriend or a philandering jerk? The two most significant testimonies come from Samuel’s best buddy, Vandad, and his girlfriend, Laide, a Swedish/Arabic interpreter. During these, Samuel is always elusive, off-screen somewhere, as the different interviewees reveal much about their own lives.

Yet the focus of the book is not on their crises but on those of their charismatic friend. To have a novel’s protagonist off to one side is the Modernist method, pioneered by Conrad in Lord Jim and taken to full fruition by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Khemiri employs this device, though in tone and context, the novel is urgently contemporary. At times, Everything I Don’t Remember resembles the peripheral city tales of Kureishi’s The Black Album (1995) or the quiet, substantive ruminations of Joseph O Neill’s Netherland (2008), with the mysterious Chuck Ramkissoon the locus of the narrator’s thoughts. As with Ramkissoon, Samuel looms even larger to his friends in death than he did in life. Here, an existence lingers only in ‘memories that will soon vanish’ – unless, Khemiri suggests, an ‘author’ preserves them. These moments of Samuel’s existence are most vividly brought to life (via Rachel Willson-Broyles’ poetic translation) at the very end of the book. His story will be told in:

. . . sunsets, in neon signs, in farewell letters, in regular letters, in missed calls, in unanswered texts, in the name of Grandma’s throat lozenges, . . . in afternoons, in scents . . . in jean cuffs . . . In hoarse laughs, in the backs of park benches . . .in Berlin dancefloors, in Parisian subways . . .

A parallel text for the novel could be Khemiri’s own open letter, written in 2013, to the Swedish Minister of Justice, in which he slams the country’s policy of racial profiling. Once the most shared texts on Twitter, this long and emotive letter succeeds by the simple conceit of asking the female minister to switch bodies with him for the day and endure the round of racist insults, stop-and-searches, and suspicious looks that a man of his appearance faces. (Khemiri is of Tunisian and Swedish descent.) ‘It’s impossible to be part of a community,’ he writes, ‘when power continually assumes that you are an other.’

And this issue is at the heart of the book, despite its tricksy narrative juggling act. Samuel, like Khemiri has a ‘Swedish mom and a North African dad.’ He is ‘black but white at the same time.’ And this schism seems to be a grave matter in Stockholm, a parochial city described as ‘an anomaly, a tiny goddamn backwater, populated by peasants, as far north as you can get.’

As the testimonies progress, tales of women wearing the veil being arrested at airports are casually introduced, as well as flashbacks to Samuel’s father and his fears he would be fired from his job due to his ethnicity (‘Sweden changed’). Integrated with this unflinching picture of an intolerant host culture is Laide’s experience as a mixed-race woman in Sweden. Just the shocking rape statistics alone (36,000 a year) are enough to make the reader doubt Sweden’s famous liberality. Though Laide is ultimately depicted as a jealous, ‘unstable’ firebrand, it is her testimony that comes to be the most convincing by the end.

Despite its sleek exterior, Stockholm is exposed as ‘full of desperate people, students, undocumented immigrants, poor people, the homeless, everyone on the hunt for a safe place.’ Recent migrants Nihad and Zainab ‘keep a low profile so the neighbours wouldn’t start to talk.’ And it seems there’s great deal to hide from. Indeed, at one point the suggestion is made that Samuel’s is a racist murder, not a car crash at all: ‘He got out of the taxi and was kicked down by a Nazi’. But the facts, as in much of the book, are opaque – the truth is as thin as snow on the ground. In the last section of the novel, the flashbacked action moves to ‘poor but sexy’ Berlin, where Samuel and his friends find the best neighbourhood for ‘döner and drugs.’ Here, the plot becomes even more labyrinthine with the suggestion that Samuel’s new girlfriend is murdered by Laide, leading to a fractured inconclusive ending: ‘Everyone is lying’ is the phrase that resonates most forcefully.

Despite its dizzying spatial leaps, and the doubt as to who is holding the narrative voice at any given time, the book succeeds bravely on its own terms. As a snapshot of where Europe is now, it more than convinces us that intolerance and hatred will only turn the clock back to the dark days of the 1930s. Fiction that addresses these issues is becoming increasingly rare, with readers seemingly favouring a kind of high-class escapist literary novel in which everything is resolved comfortably and nothing addressed in any great depth. This is not an option for Khemiri, whose own experience, like Kureishi before him, has led him to write a novel exploring urgent issues that have to be faced.

Though Everything I Can’t Remember has elements of the memory-loss thriller, at its best it’s smarter and less predictable than much literary fiction that purports to do more. Taut, perceptive, full of vitality, invention and narrative daring, the book is a meditation on citizenship, what it means to be part of a nation, and how non-negotiable that turns out to be in the end, regardless of the colour of your skin.

Jude Cook ’s second novel, Jacob’s Advice, is funding now on Unbound.