A 2016 Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year, as Chosen by Joyce Carol Oates
One of Sweden’s most celebrated young writers and activists spins an exhilarating, innovative, and gripping murder mystery reminiscent of the hit podcast Serial.
A young man named Samuel dies in a horrible car crash. Was it an accident or was it suicide? To answer that question, an unnamed writer with an agenda of his own sets out to map Samuel’s last day alive. Through conversations with friends, relatives, and neighbors, a portrait of Samuel emerges: the loving grandchild, the reluctant bureaucrat, the loyal friend, the contrived poseur. The young man who did everything for his girlfriend Laide and shared everything with his best friend Vandad. Until he lost touch with them both.
By piecing together an exhilarating narrative puzzle, we follow Samuel from the first day he encounters the towering Vandad to when they become roommates. We meet Panther, Samuel’s self-involved childhood friend whose move to Berlin indirectly cues the beginning of Samuel’s search for the meaning of love—which in turn leads Samuel to Laide. Soon, Samuel’s relationship with Laide leads to a chasm in his friendship with Vandad, and it isn’t long before the lines between loyalty and betrayal, protection, and peril get blurred irrevocably.
Everything I Don’t Remember is a gripping tale about love and memory. But it is also a story about a writer who, by filling out the contours of Samuel’s story, is actually trying to grasp a truth about himself. In the end, what remains of all our fleeting memories? And what is hidden behind everything we don’t remember? Told with Khemiri’s characteristic stylistic ingenuity, this is an emotional roller coaster ride of a book that challenges us to see ourselves—and our relationships to the closest people in our lives—in new and sometimes shocking ways.
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Jonas Hassen Khemiri is one of the most important writers of his generation. He has written four acclaimed novels and one collection of short stories, essays and plays. Khemiri is also a celebrated playwright whose work has been performed on stages around the world and who received an Obie Award in 2011 for his Off-Broadway play Invasion!. He lives in Stockholm.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Everything I Don't Remember
The neighbor sticks his head up over the hedge and asks who I am and what I’m doing here.
Welcome. Have a seat. Relax. There’s nothing to worry about, I promise. One click of the panic button and they’ll be here in thirty seconds.
The neighbor says he’s sorry; he explains that after everything that happened they can’t be blamed for being suspicious of anyone they don’t recognize.
I had definitely pictured what it would be like in here, too. You know, more like in the movies. Thick iron bars, a disgusting toilet in the corner, bunk beds, and steamy showers where you have to be careful not to drop the soap. I thought I would have to walk around with a razor blade in my mouth twenty-four/seven to be prepared. But you can see for yourself. This is more like a hostel. The people here are chill. The toilets are clean. There’s even a workshop where you can make stuff out of wood. I was lucky to end up here.
The neighbor invites me in for coffee; we walk up the gravel slope together; he closes the door to the study and turns on the coffeemaker in the kitchen. Tragic, he says, shaking his head. It’s so incredibly tragic, what happened.
Two months and three days left. But it’s okay. I don’t think about it too much. I’m pretty happy here. Okay. It’s a long time. But then again, I don’t have to worry about how I’ll make rent. What do you want to know? Should I start with how I met Samuel? Do you want the long version or the short one? You decide. I have all the time in the world.
The neighbor sets out small white cups and places Ballerina cookies on a saucer. Who else have you talked to? he asks. So many rumors are going around the neighborhood. Some people say that Samuel was depressed and had been planning it for a long time. Others say that it was just an accident. Some people blame that girl he was dating, what was her name? Laida? Saida? That’s right, Laide. Others say that it was Samuel’s big friend’s fault, that guy who’s in jail, the one who would do anything for money.
The first time we met was in February, two thousand nine. I was making rounds with Hamza. He had received a tip that a certain person was at a house party in Liljeholmen. We went over there and rang the doorbell; Hamza stuck his foot in the door before the girl who had opened it had time to close it, and he did his spiel about how we knew someone who knew someone and we were here to celebrate her new apartment. At last she let us in from the cold.
The neighbor pours coffee into the cups, holds out the saucer of cookies, and says that he didn’t know Samuel particularly well. His grandmother, though, I knew her. When you’ve been neighbors for over twenty years, you get to know each other, it’s inevitable. We used to say hi when we ran into each other down by the mailboxes. We asked how things were going; we remarked upon the weather. One time, we had a longer conversation about the pros and cons of installing geothermal heating. She was a great woman. Honest and straightforward, stubborn and strong-willed. It’s really too bad everything ended the way it did.
I followed Hamza into the fancy apartment. We walked from room to room, we nodded at people who looked down at the parquet instead of saying hello. I wondered what we were doing there, because the people at the party didn’t look like people who would have business with Hamza. The guys were wearing suit jackets and the girls were wearing special indoor shoes; the fridge had a digital display and an icemaker. I thought, this will be quick, Hamza just has to find the right person, do what needs to be done, and I’ll stand there next to him to make it clear that this is no time for discussion.
The neighbor takes a sip of coffee and turns his face toward the ceiling to swallow it. The last time I saw Samuel? It was when he was here to pick up the car. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday morning, it had rained overnight but the weather had cleared. I was sitting here listening to the radio when I saw someone sneaking around down by the mailboxes. I stood up and went over to the window to get a better look.
There was music in the living room. People were dancing politely, like shop mannequins. They had these smiles on them like Lego men. But in there among them was Samuel. And my first thought was that he was having an epileptic fit. He was, like, vibrating in time with the low-volume music. Then he got down on his knees and bounced like a guitar player. Then he shook his head side to side like he was pretending to be a church bell. It was two hours before midnight and Samuel was dancing like it was the world’s last-slash-best song.
The neighbor rises and goes to stand by the window. This is where I was standing. Right here. It was twenty minutes to nine. I stared at the mailboxes. I was holding the phone. I had a certain number to call in the event it was someone I didn’t recognize. But I quickly realized that it was Samuel. He was coming up the slope with the local paper and a few advertising flyers in his hand. He was wearing a shirt and jacket under his unbuttoned coat. He was walking slowly, looking at the ground.
Hamza kept going. I followed him. We found the right person, we had a short conversation, bills changed hands, everything went nice and smooth. When we were done, Hamza was thirsty and wanted a drink. We went to the kitchen. Hamza poured two drinks for himself and one for me. He chugged the first drink and did this big cartoon shudder. Then we stood there in silence. No one talked to us. We didn’t say anything to anyone. Now and then the girl whose party it was peeked into the kitchen to make sure we didn’t swipe anything.
The neighbor extends a crooked index finger. Do you see that birch? That’s where he stopped. He stared up at the charred treetops and the burned house. I remember thinking that he looked paler than usual. He raised one hand and patted himself on the cheek, as if he wanted to wake himself up or maybe comfort himself.
After a few minutes, Samuel and a girl with a downy mustache came into the kitchen. Samuel had dark circles under the arms of his T-shirt; the girl was wearing a red blanket without holes for her arms. She was talking evening plans, there was a club night at Reisen and a DJ had put them on the guest list at Grodan and later someone called “Horny Hanna” was having a party in Midsommarkransen. Samuel nodded and filled up his glass. I was thinking that he was about as muscular as a bow and arrow. Hamza went to the bathroom. I stayed put. This was a good time to say something. At this point you could stick out your hand and introduce yourself the way people do when they meet at parties. How’s it going? I could say. What’s up? How do you know the girl whose party this is? Which DJ is playing at Reisen? What is Horny Hanna’s exact address? But I didn’t say anything. I just stood there thinking that I should say something. Because there and then I wasn’t as used to hearing my own voice as I am now.
The neighbor sits down again and pours more coffee. Then about fifteen minutes must have passed. When Samuel came out of the house he was carrying a plastic bag that was so full it looked like the handles would break. He stuffed the bag in the backseat and was just about to get behind the wheel when he caught sight of me. He raised his hand to wave.
Samuel’s friend went out for a smoke. Samuel started opening and closing the kitchen drawers.
“You don’t happen to know where I can find a knife, do you?” he asked me.
I pointed at the knife block.
Samuel took a watermelon from the fruit bowl, split it in half, and asked if I wanted a piece. I nodded. Then he cruised through the kitchen, handing out pieces of watermelon to anyone who wanted one.
“Lame party,” he said when he came back.
“Are you guys going somewhere else later?”
“Do you want to try something cool? Here—stick your hand in here.”
Samuel held out the watermelon half. I wondered if he was entirely sane.
“Why?” I asked.
“It will be memorable.”
And without really knowing why, I put out my hand and stuck it into the melon.
“How does it feel? Weird, right? Awesome? Now it’s my turn.”
It didn’t feel like anything special. Wet. And crisp. I pulled my hand out of the watermelon and Samuel stuck his own in. The other people in the kitchen looked at us like we were pissing in the sink. But Samuel just smiled and asked if they wanted to try it.
“You’ll regret it,” he said when they shook their heads.
The neighbor sighs. He stood there. Next to his grandma’s Opel. With his hand raised in greeting. And I was close to waving back. But then I saw the soot-covered yard, the remains of what had been his grandma’s attic, the black burn marks on the roof of my garage. I remembered how badly it might have ended if the wind had been blowing in a different direction. I looked away. But it was harder than I would have expected. I nearly had to do this so my hand wouldn’t wave all on its own [pushing his right hand down with his left]. Some things are so deeply ingrained that it’s impossible to stop yourself. You’ve done them all your life and they’re just automatic. It’s like with sexuality.
Samuel wiped his hand and introduced himself. I didn’t know which name I should use because when I was out doing rounds with Hamza I never gave my real name. One time I called myself “Örjan.” Another time I introduced myself as “Travolta.” Once when we slipped into a private party in Jakobsberg, on the hunt for twin sisters who had borrowed money to keep their hair salon afloat, I called myself “Hoobastank.” I could say anything I wanted, because when you look a certain way no one would dare to tell you that your name is not your name. But when Samuel introduced himself I told him my real name. I braced myself for the inevitable questions. “What did you say? Vamdad? Vanbab? Van Damme? Oh, Vandad. What kind of name is that? What does it mean? Where are your parents from? Did they come here as political refugees? Were you born here? Are you whole or half? Do you feel Swedish? How Swedish do you feel? Do you eat pork? By the way, do you feel Swedish? Can you go back? Have you gone back? How does it feel to go back? Do you maybe feel foreign when you’re here and Swedish when you’re there?” When people realized I didn’t want to talk origins they would ask about working out, whether I liked protein drinks, or what I thought about MMA.
The neighbor pushes away his coffee cup and clears his throat. In retrospect, I think I might as well have waved back. What difference could it have made? Maybe none at all. Samuel’s day would have started out a bit more pleasantly. He would have been in a slightly better mood when he pulled out into traffic. But there was no way I could know that it would be the last time I saw him.
Samuel was different. Samuel didn’t try to talk origins or working out. Samuel just said:
“Vandad? Like the shah who battled Genghis Khan? Rad.”
Then he devoted ten minutes to talking about Mongols. He said that point-five percent of the men in the world share DNA with Genghis Khan solely because he had sex with-slash-raped so many girls. He said that Genghis Khan’s empire was the largest in world history and that the Mongols killed like forty million people. He said that the Mongols punished cheapskate village chieftains by pouring freshly melted, red-hot gold into their bodily orifices until they were fried. I had no clue why this scrawny little dude was talking to me about Mongols, and I had no clue why I was listening. But there was something different about the way we were chatting. We never brought up jobs, addresses, or backgrounds. We only talked about Mongol weaponry, their battle techniques, their loyalty, their horses. Or. Mostly Samuel was the one doing the talking, and I listened. But when the girl whose party it was came into the kitchen and saw us standing there, super deep in conversation, it was as if she started seeing me in a different light. I liked the way she was looking at me.
“How do you know all of this?” I asked, thinking that maybe he was a history teacher.
“I don’t know,” Samuel said, and smiled. “I think it comes from some computer game. My memory is fucking weird. Some things just stick.”
“But mostly they just vanish,” said his red-blanket-clad friend, as she came back in from the balcony in a cloud of smoke.
The neighbor brushes a few crumbs from the vinyl tablecloth and says that he certainly isn’t like some people in the neighborhood. I don’t have any prejudices against people from other countries. I have never understood the point of different cultures isolating themselves from each other. I love to travel. Ever since I retired I’ve spent the winter abroad. Indian food is very good. There’s a guy who works at the fish counter at Konsum who’s from Eritrea and he is very nice. I had no problem at all when new people started moving into Samuel’s grandmother’s house. It didn’t bother me that some of the women had veils. On the other hand, I didn’t like it that they used the grill out on the roof terrace and threw their garbage bags in my garbage can. But that had nothing to do with their background.
When Hamza came back, the mood in the kitchen was transformed. People held their glasses closer to their bodies.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Do fags fuck in the woods?” he said.
“Why do fags fuck in the woods?” Samuel asked.
“Aw, it’s a fucking figure of speech,” Hamza said. “Read a book and maybe you won’t have to broadcast your ignorance.”
Hamza and I took off; I noticed that he was in a mood, something had gotten into him, it was going to be a long night. I was right; before the night was over some stuff had happened, I can’t get into exactly what, but I backed him up, I didn’t let him down, I’d said that I would be with him all the way and I was, I had his back, loyal as a Mongol. But on the way home I promised myself I’d scale back and try to find a new way to pay the rent.
The neighbor shakes my hand and wishes me good luck in reconstructing Samuel’s last day. If I were to give you one piece of advice, 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.
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