“As You Would Have Told It to Me (Sort Of) If We Had Known Each Other Before You Died”
by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
translated from the Swedish by Rachel Wilson-Broyles
from the September 25, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Jonas Hassen Khemiri is a Swedish novelist and playwright. A few of his works have been translated into English, including Montecore and Everything I Don’t Remember. This is the first time his fiction has been highlighted in The New Yorker.

I haven’t ever read his work before, but this look promising, as does Everything I Don’t Remember. So, I’m anxious to see what you all think.

Please feel free to leave your comments below and join in a discussion about this story. Tell us if you’ve read his other work, and what you thought about it.

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By | 2017-09-22T15:14:44+00:00 September 18th, 2017|Categories: Jonas Hassen Khemiri, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Paul Epstein September 22, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    It’s obviously very original, but is it effective? I think I understood the plot, but I didn’t understand the point of the story, or why it is thought to have merit. Not saying the story’s without merit, but just saying that I don’t see it. Of course, I might get it if I reread the story a few times, but I have no grounds for confidence that that would be a good use of my time. If a chorus of other readers tell me that it’s a really fine story, I might well give it a second look.

  2. inhalelit September 22, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Although I enjoyed reading this story, I was perplexed at the end. I was a little lost after “[e]ight months later I died'” although I then comprehended that the narrator is a fictional character. It is probably a lack of comprehension on my part and not the fault of the author that I am unsure what the author intended. I am curious to see what others think. I was intrigued enough to put “Everything I Don’t Remember” on my lengthy TBR though.

  3. David September 23, 2017 at 7:56 am

    This is a case where the author’s attempts to be clever and the resulting structure of the story let the reader down. Initially it appears to be a story about a man who is actually arrested for a crime, but mistakenly believes it is a prank played by his friends for a bachelor party. Even as the “joke” goes on much further than anyone could reasonably expect it is a joke, the narrator still believes it is one. This is a funny idea, but once we get the joke there really is little more to it than that, so it seems to run on a little too long. I had time to recall that Italo Calvino does a similar thing, but much better, in his chapter “Leaning from the steep slope” in If on a winter’s night a traveler.
    .
    But then the story changes as we realize the nature of the crime he is accused of (and almost certainly has committed). He is accused of a brutal assault and attempted murder of the woman he claims is his fiance and he still imagines he is about to marry. To me this felt like the author pulled the rug out from under the reader. Rather than being a clever twist or an interesting development to the story, I felt more betrayed by the fact that the author lets us think that the narrator’s confusion is maybe an amusing story, but then it gets very serious very suddenly. It is only after we learn the nature of the crime and the absurdity of the man’s denial that it really becomes a question of whether he really has forgotten he did this terrible thing and believes this is a prank or whether this is a fiction he has created and believes to deflect his mind from accepting the horror of his own violence. If I had felt that question arise before we knew how vicious the crime was, then it might not have been so bad. But I didn’t, so it was.
    .
    But Khemiri isn’t done with his clever tricks. When the narrator is released from jail, goes to Portugal, and dies in a traffic accident, we finally find out that the man who committed the crime is not the actual narrator of the story at all. This is where the title of the story is finally explained. The actual narrator of the story is a different man, someone who knew the criminal / dead man / original “narrator” when they were is school (sort of… maybe a bit…). The actual narrator of the story is Miro, the man we are told is supposed to be the one who planned the fake arrest prank. The story is, as the title tells us, how he imagines the other man would have told him the story of the arrest if he had told it to him before he died. But then the real narrator, Miro, starts telling us that maybe it goes like this and maybe it goes like that. He does not really have a clear idea of the story he is telling and we realize from his having said “fictive characters are way better than friends” that the story that the man believes this is a prank is a story that Miro has created and he still is sorting out the details of how the crime actually happened. Ok, so forget everything about the first 90% of the story, we have finally arrived at the real story. But what’s the point? Is it just to tell us that writers create fictional worlds that can seem real to them? Is it to tell us about someone who has such trouble coping with finding out someone he once knew is a brutal criminal that he makes up stories about how it could have gone to distance himself from it? Or what? I honestly don’t know. All I do know is that by the time we get to this new turn in the road I am already too frustrated and annoyed by all the trickery of the story to really want to try to puzzle it out further.
    .
    Maybe there was something more interesting to this story, but the structural gimmicks of how it was written seemed to me to throw up several barriers to both my engagement with it and ultimately my understanding of it. I might be wrong, but I think the confusion that inhalelit describes in the previous comment might be a common experience reading this story. I don’t think it’s the readers fault. Sometimes when an author tries to be too clever they end up not being clever enough to pull it off. That is what happened here.

  4. Paul Epstein September 23, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    David sounds about right to me, but I didn’t have the patience to work out the plot in that amount of detail, and to explain it to our community. I’m surprised that the other two commenters share my low opinion. I wondered if my literary and philistine ignorance was showing, and I was neglecting a short-story masterpiece.

  5. inhalelit September 23, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    David, thank you so much for taking the time to articulate and share your comments. They were helpful to me in grappling with this story. I read a lot of short fiction and welcome endings that are open to the reader’s interpretation, but after too much grappling I want to move on. I wouldn’t say I had a low opinion of this piece per se, just that I found it frustrating as I felt a bit stupid needing help in figuring it out. Not every story fits every reader, which makes reading short fiction so much fun and a process of discovery. And thanks to Paul and everyone else for posting on this site, which I quite enjoy.

  6. Dennis Lang September 23, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Fascinating, dizzying adventure, beautifully constructed. The “reality” of it constantly sliding away, too slippery to quite get a firm grip, dependent on what voice is actually telling the story. Yup, as David, always astute to detail, reiterates foregoing, “maybe it goes like this, maybe it goes like that.”

    Had me all the way!

  7. Freeman September 23, 2017 at 8:38 pm

    Having just finished reading this story, my first impression is it was fascinatingly told. I found the ending mystifying at first, but it was also bracing in its sudden strangeness. The writing generally felt spry and mysterious in a way that both confounded and intrigued. I didn’t mind the tricky narrative maneuvers as, in retrospect, they seemed earned. Khemiri charts a trajectory away from Miro’s fictional absorptions and toward the beginnings of some kind of self-reflection. I think. Anyway, here are some initial and tentative thoughts that I figured I’d throw out here, just in case any of this makes sense…

    I believe a lot of this has to do with Miro’s fictional engineering of connections, which he uses as substitutes for the real thing. This escapist attitude often emerges in the story he tells. For instance, Miro begins the story by focusing on the neighbour across the courtyard. We’re told that the neighbour and Miro’s mostly forgotten friend, the disturbed arsonist, are watching the same television programme. This supposedly provides a sense of synchronicity which binds one to the other, despite the physical distance between them. Another indication of Miro’s escapist approach can be found in the perceived (i.e., surely one-sided) “unspoken feeling of solidarity between” the friend and the police officers. The unpleasant interactions — between the friend and the interrogator, his lawyer, Katja, etc. — are often desperately, and unconvincingly, warped into something palatable. All of this betrays Miro’s eagerness to “escape” from the messy realities of the world and into the supposedly more comforting and pliable world of fiction. This escapist attitude is at once motivating Miro’s creation of this story and determining its particulars.

    Those bits from the story also link up with Miro’s specific desire to engineer a connection with this old friend that he barely remembers. He’s trying to figure out a way to paper over the guilt-inducing fact of their separation. Miro supposedly prefers fictive characters, as he later reveals, but he’s also beginning to wonder about the actual people he’s turned his back on, and how he might use fiction to close those gaps (of course, it is this overly escapist, “substitutive” use of fiction that helped to create those gaps in this first place, so his “solution” here is misguided). I also think that Miro believes that, had he remained close to this person, he might have been able to prevent all of the painful events that took place. Following this, Miro undertakes a quest of posthumous salvation via fiction — he tries to positively reshape the events of his friend’s life, to make them better. This would account for the almost super-heroic role that Miro envisions for himself in the story. He’s presented like a conjuror or magician that is supposedly capable of creating ridiculously elaborate ruses, but also whisking them away to reveal that, surprise, it’s all been a preamble to a joyous fête: the champagne picnic and so on. This sense of Miro-as-magician extends to Miro’s narration, as well. As the narrator, Miro eventually uses the act of fiction to “resurrect” his forgotten friend after his death in Portugal, and he also attempts to magically restore a sense of romantic harmony between him and Katja.

    At the same time, though, we learn that Miro is wrestling with competing impulses. He’s struggling with the vagueness of his subject matter, and he can’t quite shake the reality that he’s trying to both reject and ameliorate. He doesn’t really seem to understand what, exactly, happened to this man he once knew, or what he went through at the last stage of his life. He only has some foggy sense of what took place (which is another symptom of Miro’s disconnection from the world and his blinkering escapism). So, at some moments, Miro’s account of his friend’s journey seems laced with judgment, which would comport with what he has presumably heard about the man’s crimes (i.e., the reality). I mean, if this individual is the criminal he’s often made out to be in the story — a vengeful arsonist, and possibly worse — then some judgment is obviously warranted. However, since Miro’s intended goal is one of posthumous salvation via fiction, he’s also willfully sympathetic. This is why he imagines an outcome where Katja and the friend, who has been improbably resurrected, are reunited. However, like much of this story, this becomes a shaky proposition. Miro’s characters seem unable to support the fantasy he’s selling because, on some level, Miro himself can’t accept it as convincing or just. His speculative, revisionist history is undone by a consciousness of Katja’s victimization, and of his own part in cruelly extending that victimization, albeit in the fictional realm of his story. The romantic restoration that Miro tries to engineer is therefore untenable and disperses in the closing paragraphs. This tension is most hauntingly crystallized in Katja’s undulating pleas, which alternate between the world of Miro’s fantasy and a more disturbing reality (Katja’s enduring trauma) that refuses to undergo erasure, even if it’s fictional erasure: “Don’t leave me please leave me don’t leave me please leave.”

    Miro, via the acquaintance he imagines, describes himself as someone who thinks “fictive characters are way better than friends, since they are less annoying, more interesting, and never die.” I think, by the end of the story, he is finally thinking about the error, and the cost, of this excessive retreat into fiction. His sense of Katja’s suffering perhaps suggests the emergence (or return) of another thread in his personality — something less reclusive and misanthropic, something more expansive, compassionate, and considerate. His attempt at salvaging his friend’s life through fiction, as faulty and misguided as the execution is, also suggests a kind of solicitude. At any rate, by the end of the story, Miro seems to be contending with his decidedly isolated position in the world (“you realize what you’ve done,” Miro-as-forgotten-friend tells himself). His own withdrawal from substantial, actual interactions with others is precisely what has led to this outsized guilt about his forgotten friend. More broadly, this friend surely represents a larger interpersonal deficit in Miro’s life, which is a consequence of his unchecked escapism. Futilely, Miro initially tried to address this deficit through its catalyst — that is, through the telling of more stories, through engineering more palatable substitutions for the real thing. This didn’t work because reality — in this case, Miro’s foggy, fiction-addled, removed view of reality — kept intruding.

    This is not to say that Khemiri is excoriating the act of fiction, or even absorption into fiction. Instead, he’s targeting Miro’s particular mode of unchecked, isolated absorption. Miro tried to sever himself from the world through fiction, instead of using fiction to engage with, and complement, the world. The reason that Miro forgot about his deceased friend, with whom he was apparently quite close at one point, is because he lost himself in his stories, and fled from the real people that he considered, in his myopic estimation, to be “annoying” or “uninteresting.” This, again, suggests a misanthropic world-view, which evidently leaves Miro adrift in a sea of confusion and compunction. He gave up true connections in favour of fictions that were never going to successfully supplant reality. In the process, he made a haze out of a reality that, nevertheless, remained stubbornly inescapable.* While the story seems to conclude on a lament and a belated realization that is not necessarily, or straightforwardly, tied to self-improvement, we can locate some oblique hint of hope in that final paragraph. Perhaps Miro is beginning to accept not only the inescapability of reality, but also its value and potential. The reality he once spurned can serve as the basis for a better and less isolating relationship with fiction, and also, a less escapist mode of existence, in which interpersonal bonds are not spurned or forgotten, but sought and nurtured.
    ____________________

    * Miro wasn’t simply deliberately neglectful of reality, but he also violently distorted his own perspective on reality via close-minded, broad-brush, negative accounts of other people. This points toward some of the dark edges in Miro’s fictional inclinations. Since this is Miro’s story, and not his deceased friend’s, we should ask, to whom can we ascribe those discomfiting, mean-spirited descriptions of Katja’s behaviour and appearance, which are also partly extended toward her sisters? Those aspects of the story smack of misanthropy and/or misogyny, which could very well be Miro’s own. Along with Miro’s mention of “annoying, uninteresting” people, this may provide another hint about his hateful and faulty reasons for retreating into fiction.

  8. Dennis Lang September 24, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Freeman–
    Very cool take!!!

  9. Sean H September 29, 2017 at 1:05 am

    A “meh” from me. A little gimmicky. Not a bad premise though. Needed better execution. I felt like it probably lost a lot in translation. And the second twist (it’s not POV: guy who’s had a psychic break and doesn’t remember assaulting his girlfriend, it’s POV: guy who went to school with a person who assaulted his girlfriend and so guy turned person into a character in a story) kind of took it one step too far. It also reminded me of these sort of pulpy Scandinavian books by Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson, and structurally it bites off of DFW’s “Good Old Neon.” Khemiri seems very clearly a wannabe post-McDonagh too, drawing from the great playwright’s well but without nearly the same verve or originality. There’s also some hubris and an eldritch and old-fashioned fashioning of fiction as the realm of choice. It would’ve been more interesting and contemporary-historical if it was the internet/e-dentity (USA), or body pillows and hikikomori (Japan), or some bloody tribal shit (Rwanda).
    Khemiri reads as a youngish author with some smarts and chops and literary awareness, but I prefer my gamesmanship to be a bit more consequential (and/or funny). Also, is Europe moving away from the pseudo-memoirists (Knausgaard, Ferrante) and on to retreads of its 1980s postmodernisms? The wordy title and the appropriative subject matter here are very much in the vein of Calvino, Winterson, and Kundera.

  10. Greg October 1, 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Freeman – I have read your remarkable post twice and I now understand what the author was trying to say about the roles of fiction. The following parts of your comments really stood out to me:

    “This is not to say that Khemiri is excoriating the act of fiction, or even absorption into fiction. Instead, he’s targeting Miro’s particular mode of unchecked, isolated absorption. Miro tried to sever himself from the world through fiction, instead of using fiction to engage with, and complement, the world.”

    “Miro wasn’t simply deliberately neglectful of reality, but he also violently distorted his own perspective on reality via close-minded, broad-brush, negative accounts of other people. This points toward some of the dark edges in Miro’s fictional inclinations.”

    Sean – You ask an excellent question, as it was looking like ‘first person biography fiction’ was the next step for the Canon:

    “Also, is Europe moving away from the pseudo-memoirists (Knausgaard, Ferrante) and on to retreads of its 1980s postmodernisms?”

  11. Madwomanintheattic October 21, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    Above commentaries much appreciated. Always interested in narrative gymnastics. Can’t help thinking of Joan Miro; can you?

  12. kenwindrum November 1, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I will join the “meh” chorus. I was very interested in this for about 3/4 of the way and found the shifts in what we knew/thought to be well handled but once it starts with him saying he died on a moped in Portugal, I felt it went off the rails and wasn’t skillful enough to earn its extra layers of meta-fictional gameplaying.

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