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Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Invasion! Pjäser noveller texter (Invasion! Plays, Short Stories, Writings)

Norstedts,  2008. ISBN: 9789113018522

Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2008:2

English Translation: Theatre Café Plays One, translated by Frank Perry. Oberon Books, 2008. ISBN 9781840028935.

This book brings together Invasion! and a newly-written drama, Fem gånger Gud (Five Times God), as well as fourteen shorter stories and columns previously published elsewhere.

While many in Sweden worry about correct language use and the corrupting effects of English, Khemiri seems to be the type of author who absorbs the Swedish language in all its forms from obscure French "loan words" in aged dictionaries to dialect to slang overheard on Stockholm’s metro, laughing to himself and enjoying playing around with the results. In his first novel, Ett öga rött, the narrator, Halim, develops an idiom of his own, while Montecore, published in 2006 was partly told in a Swedish hyper-influenced by French by a narrator incorrectly analysing the origins of words.

In a sense, it is fitting that the play Invasion! opens with school students invading the stage during a performance of C. J. L. Almqvist’s Signora Luna, seeing as Almqvist himself was more than capable of experimenting with language. His characters in the novel The Queen’s Tiara use so many French expressions that the similarity to Montecore is striking. Khemiri’s invading students stage-crash just after the name of the Arab character Abulkasem Ali Moharrem is mentioned, and the name Abulkasem takes on a life of its own during the play. It becomes an all-purpose slang word; a false name to use when chatting up a girl, the name of a mythical terrorist, a Lebanese uncle who masquerades as a dancer called Lance, and, with increasing realism, the name of a refugee sheltering in a summer cottage near Malmö and picking apples, only to be himself "plucked like an apple" by the police and accused of causing all social ills from the greenhouse effect to increased sales of garlic and worsening standards of snow removal in Stockholm.

The same mixture of the tragic and the absurd appears elsewhere. Points about Swedish society are made subtly rather than spelt out: "Vanya vet" (Vanya Knows) starts off as a humorous tale of a caretaker at a children’s playground who claims to have met Whitney Houston and lived in Los Angeles, but slides into homelessness. Popular culture from the 1990s features strongly too, from the way a word like Napster takes you back to a time when mobiles were as big as a thigh and people could be "coloured" ("Tidsmaskiniska ord" - Time Machine Words) to the MC Hammer and Kriss Kross references in "Fem gånger Gud".

Perhaps the other standout text is "Nationaltången" (something like The National Tong, as opposed to "nationalsången", national song or anthem), supposedly a presentation of the Swedes with an increasingly bizarre selection of facts ("There’s no other people in the world who ascribe such significance to their hairstyles"; "They store everything, absolutely EVERYTHING in tubes"; "Their faces are like... like... omelettes"), interspersed with snatches of dialect, immigrant Swedish and the lecturer’s erroneous English translations ("Sorry, I forgetted one thing – to be smooth with people they call to strike with-hairs"). The result is linguistic experimentation at its funniest.

Darcy Hurford

Also by Jonas Hassen Khemiri

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