What attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning novel was its structure. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him.
Samuel is an administrator at the Migration Board. It’s not the job he dreamt of as an undergraduate hoping to change the world but bills have to be paid. He has a little trouble with his memory, worries about his grandmother’s dementia and sometimes does outlandish things, adding to his Experience Bank. When he meets Vandad they seem to hit it off and soon he’s moved in with his new friend, so different from Samuel with his bulky body and shady dealings. When Samuel falls in love with the idealistic, politically active Laide, Vandad looking jealously on. Samuel opens the doors of his grandmother’s house first to one of Laide’s women in trouble, then another and before long things have got out of hand. As the year rolls on, Vandad becomes increasingly resentful, Laide’s possessiveness becomes more apparent and Samuel finds himself caught in the middle. One spring day, Samuel takes his grandmother for a driving assessment, delivers her back to her nursing home then – late for work – jumps into her car and drives off. This is the bare outline of Samuel’s story, fleshed out through the many interviews our nameless writer records with those that knew Samuel, each with their own version to tell.
Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. Each of the many interviewees unwittingly lets slip small details about themselves, colouring their version of events. As the writer tightens his focus on the two who were closest to Samuel, each conveys a very different view both of each other and the events of the past year. Memory, perception, love and its very different interpretations, underpin Khemiri’s novel which plays out against a backdrop of a Sweden far from comfortable with its new multicultural identity, a theme which hums in a subtle undercurrent beneath Samuel’s story. It’s an immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing. Khemiri has written three other novels, none of which seem to be available in translation as far as I can see. I hope that will be put right soon.