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Book review: Jonas Hassen Khemiri pushes boundaries with a mysterious death and a maze of memories

Questions hang over a young man's death but as we piece fragments of his life together, we learn there is no objective truth, in Everything I Don't Remember.
Everything I Don't Remember by Jonas Hassen Khemiri is published by Scribner.
Everything I Don't Remember by Jonas Hassen Khemiri is published by Scribner.

Acclaimed Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s audacious and richly drawn new novel Everything I Don’t Remember pushes the boundaries of literary fiction.

More curator than narrator, an unnamed writer (possibly Khemiri himself) attempts to piece together the events that led to the unexpected death of a young man named Samuel, all via a series of accounts of his life from those who supposedly knew him best.

Killed in a car crash before the novel starts, it could be an accident or a suicide but Samuel is the most teasing of enigmas and this is the lynchpin around which the story unfolds.

He’s a man of as many different faces as there are people who knew him – caring grandson; unfulfilled paper-pusher; generous friend; intoxicated lover – or perhaps he’s just a big fake, someone who “conformed so much that [he] erased [him]self”.

It’s an ambitious conceit and one that demands a not-insignificant amount of effort on the part of the reader. “If I were to give you one piece of advice,” one of his interviewees tells the writer in the very first chapter, “it would be to keep it simple. Just tell what happened – no frills. I’ve read parts of your other books and it seemed like you were making things unnecessarily difficult for yourself.”

One has to assume this is Khemiri injecting a playful metafictive angle into proceedings but it also acts as a warning of the complications to come.

Initially the story is rather hard to follow; not just in terms of working out what’s going on but more to the point, identifying who exactly it is who is telling the(ir) story.

Alongside the recollections of an eclectic cast of supporting characters – friends, relatives, neighbours and strangers Samuel came into contact with prior to his death – the predominant narratives are those recounted by the two most important people in his life: his flatmate and best friend, Vandad; and his ex-girlfriend, Laide.

These form the spine of the novel but it’s a curving backbone full of knotty contradictions as Khemiri switches between the two stories, paragraph by paragraph, with almost giddy speed.

Not that persevering beyond this initial confusion isn’t without its rewards though. By the beginning of the second section – the novel is split into three – such is the skill with which Khemiri characterises each of his protagonists’ language and perspective (seamlessly translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles), an attentive reader will have found their feet.

Beneath these structural pyrotechnics lies a broader story of imposition, appropriation and lack of individual agency: that of the immigrant experience, something Khemiri has written about passionately before, most notably in his 2013 open letter to Sweden’s minister for justice regarding the country’s racial profiling.

Samuel – named thus because his North African father figured out the hard way “the reaction a foreign name would get you from employers and landlords” – works for the migration board, and Laide is a Swedish/Arabic interpreter who attends protests against anti-immigration policies. When Samuel’s grandmother moves into an old people’s home, he and Laide turn her house into an unofficial shelter for women and children, most of whom are asylum seekers.

The novel has been likened to the hit podcast Serial and I can see why. Like the best of these increasingly popular true crime investigative journalism projects – think Making a Murderer here too – Everything I Don’t Remember teaches us that there is no objective truth.

All narrators are unreliable; there’s as many sides to a story as there are tellers; and perhaps most significantly, at best memory is a fickle and mysterious mistress – “I don’t know why I remember her in particular,” confesses Vandad of one of his clients (he works for a removals company) – while at worst it’s the most untrustworthy of sources: just because you recollect something, it doesn’t mean what you’re remembering is the truth.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.

Updated: May 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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