“A man without language is like a camel without humps – of no value.” This old Arabic saying is quoted, and possibly invented for reasons that later become clear, by a character in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s first novel (One Eye Red, 2003). As an introduction to Khemiri’s work, it’s an endearing reflection on the referential aspect of language. Bung a camel in somewhere and hey presto! A caravanserai of wisdom and authority spreads itself at your feet.
Although it’s a truism that all good writers spend their creative lives finding their own unmistakable idiom, there are some for whom the very possibility of speech turns out to be a saving grace. It means more, far more, than discovering a gift or honing a talent: speech, language and interchange are keys that open the door to a home newly furnished with self-acceptance and self-definition. Yet as a writer of mixed Swedish-Tunisian parentage, Khemiri learnt firsthand that language harbours pitfalls as well as potential.
Born in Sweden in 1978, he studied economics in Paris and literature in Stockholm, and interned with the UN. His first novel, written in Swedish, was a runaway success, winning a handful of prizes and selling over 200,000 copies. It follows the sufferings of young Halim, an adolescent of Arab-European parentage – a classic outsider caught in his own confused perception of the world around him. This is cultural discontent and self-deceit at its best, and Halim’s struggle to find his place in the post-9/11 multikulti meltdown makes him a worthy successor to Holden Caulfield.
The language, even in translation, is a revelation. Raw and authentic and uncompromising. Khemiri describes the experience of writing his first novel as “a great joy. I wanted to capture the voice of someone who used language as a political tool to distance himself from a society that he considers racist and discriminatory. So Halim writes in a sort of homemade, broken language: he tries to recreate himself through the words that he chooses. Towards the end of the book, we realize that Halim was actually born and raised in Sweden, much like myself, and the authenticity of this self-proclaimed outsider is put into doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by the link between language and identity – how we can use our words to create new versions of ourselves.”
A second novel was published in 2006 to reviews best described as rapturous, raking in yet more prizes. Montecore has been translated into fifteen languages and a US edition is upcoming; it’s an astonishing mix of fiction, autobiography and epistolary narrative. Here, too, language is manipulative, a possible source of confusion – a revealing veil drawn over different versions of the truth. Khemiri’s work as a playwright is just as impressive (his play Invasion ran for two seasons to full houses and was also critically acclaimed).
In 2009, Khamiri moved to Berlin after receiving a year’s stipend from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). He has spent his time here working on a new novel and finishing his third play, We Who are Hundred, which premiered in Sweden last September and opened in Norway in January. This spring, Khemiri plans to split his life between Berlin and Stockholm, and maybe find the time “to brush up on my embarrassingly bad German”.
Language and the (ab)use of language when it comes to defining one’s position in a given context: this is the common denominator in Khemiri’s work. In An Attempt at Nuclear Physics and Unchanged Unending, language appears initially to enable the narrator’s function as chronicler of a relationship, before being revealed as the great disabler. In An Attempt at Nuclear Physics, a phrase overheard on a bus worms its way into a partnership; the apple turns rotten and falls. When asked to describe his relationship with his significant other, the narrator of Unchanged Unending gets caught up in processes of revision and it becomes clear that the two of them have no future.
In showing that language has a strong smoke and mirrors component, doesn’t the writer undermine the very substance of his trade? “Life would certainly be easier if we could just sit back and trust the words that we are constantly being bombarded with. But at the same time, we are all aware of the manipulative nature of language. Storytelling is always fictional and I guess I’m more interested in undermining than underlining the romantic idea of the writer as a teller of truth.”