This was one of those events where the authors seem almost mystically well matched – and not just because we publish one of them and were disappointed to be pipped to the other.
Both authors’ most recent novels won prestigious literary prizes in their respective countries: Peter Terrin won the Netherlands’ A.K.O for Post Mortem (in truth Terrin is Belgian, the fourth Belgian writer to win the prize since its inception in 1987); Jonas Hassen Khemiri won Sweden’s August Prize for Everything I Don’t Remember*.
And both novels do something unusual with the form. Post Mortem is an intriguing blend of fiction and autobiography, based on a rare and life-threatening illness that affected his daughter when she was only four years old. The main character is a writer, Emiel Steegman, who is writing a novel about a writer named . . . T . . . short for . . . ? In the third and final part of the novel, we learn the effect of the novel Emiel has written, seen through the eyes of his biographer, a clever addition as a biography is the only part of an author’s oeuvre he doesn’t control. Interestingly, Terrin has Steegman win a fictional literary prize, the Golden Bellyband, for a fictional novel – in a novel that went on to win a real prize*.
Everything I Don’t Remember is an initially bewildering novel, with multiple narrators offering a collection of sharply written vignettes that coalesce into a beguiling whole as you reach the novel’s halfway point. At first it is quite difficult to work out who is talking and why their testimonies seem so contradictory, but it is a novel that undoubtedly rewards patience. It is about the life and death of a young Swedish man named Samuel, whose demise is directly related to his girlfriend’s decision to turn his grandmother’s home into a refugee centre.
Taken together these two novels (and writers) demonstrate that if you are looking for fiction that is a bit different, and writers that are willing to take risks and experiment it’s worth taking more than a cursory glance towards the continent.
* Everything I Don’t Remember is published by Scribner. The cads!
** Shout out to Joël Dicker who wrote a novel about a young man writing a book so famous he’s recognised all over American which became so famous that he himself is now recognised all over Switzerland.
*** Post Mortem was supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union.