March 1, 2013 7:32 pm

Philip Roth and Zlatan Ibrahimović

A striker’s bestselling autobiography and the legendary novel by a great American writer both tell tales of immigrant life – and the parallels are remarkable, writes Simon Kuper

The best footballer’s autobiography of recent years is probably I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović. In it, the Swedish striker recounts his rise from an ethnic ghetto in Malmö to greatness. Zlatan (as he is usually known) is currently banging in goals for Paris St Germain.

Zlatan Ibrahimović©Getty

Zlatan Ibrahimović, born in Malmö to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother

Zlatan has a Bosnian father and Croatian mother. They married to get the dad a Swedish resident’s permit, and soon separated. Zlatan’s book, ghostwritten by David Lagercrantz, is an immigrant’s tale. In fact, having sold 700,000 copies in Sweden alone and been published in 15 countries, it’s probably the bestselling European immigrant’s tale since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). The book was also shortlisted for Sweden’s prestigious lit­erary award, the August Prize.

Once you get past the obligatory snigger prompted by the phrase “footballer’s autobiog­raphy”, you can see that Zlatan’s book strangely resembles an earlier immigrant’s tale: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Philip Roth’s classic novel about growing up Jewish in 1930s and 1940s Newark, New Jersey. Each man’s story illuminates the other. Moreover, each illuminates the increasingly typical yet rarely heard immigrant experience. Most of the talk about immigrants comes from politicians pontificating about them. These books are wonderful first-hand accounts of what it’s like to grow up in an immigrant family. Though Zlatan and Roth are separated by an ocean and four decades, the overlaps are remarkable.

Zlatan’s book is a confessional autobiography; Roth’s, fictionalised confessional autobiography. Roth’s narrator Alex Portnoy is, like Roth, a Newark boy born in 1933. (Roth, who recently announced that he had given up writing, turns 80 on March 19.) Both Zlatan and Portnoy are angry prodigies looking back on the ghetto from early maturity – Zlatan narrates aged 28, Portnoy aged 33. And both books, in large part, are odes to the native blonde girl.

More

On this topic

Simon Kuper

Like many children of immigrants, Portnoy and Roth grew up segregated from the native mainstream. Portnoy explains (the novel is told as a long session with his mute shrink, Dr Spielvogel): “In my cousin Marcia’s graduating class from Weequahic High, out of the two hundred and fifty students, there were only eleven goyim and one colored. Go beat that, said Uncle Hymie.” In short, the dominant American caste of the day – white gentiles – was almost wholly absent from Newark. As for Zlatan’s concrete ghetto of Rosengård, in Malmö: “It was crawling with Somalis, Turks, Yugos, Poles and north Africans, but there were no native Swedes.”

These are experiences that few natives can comprehend. The first thing Zlatan told Lagercrantz was that he wanted his book to be 10 times better than “the one about the Swedish king”, but the footballer soon spotted a problem: his excellent ghostwriter “came from a completely different world from mine”. Zlatan’s Rosengård was as far removed from mainstream Sweden as Portnoy’s Newark from mainstream America.

“Swedish TV didn’t exist for us,” writes Zlatan. “We lived in a very different world from the Swedes. I was 20 when I saw my first Swedish film, and I had no idea who the Swedish heroes and sports stars were.” Instead he and his father used to watch videos of American boxers such as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, or the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Philip Roth©Getty

Philip Roth, born in Newark, New Jersey, grandchild of European Jewish immigrants

Similarly Portnoy, recalling his family’s Thanksgiving meals, wonders: “Why then can’t I believe I am eating my dinner in America, that America is where I am, instead of some other place to which I will one day travel … ?”

Both men’s parents know almost nothing of the social norms outside their ghetto. In this incomprehensible new country, the first generation almost cannot succeed. Zlatan’s father is a hard-drinking janitor; Portnoy’s an underpaid insurance agent. Portnoy’s parents possess just three bound books not including schoolbooks. Zlatan says his parents never asked things like, “ ‘Do you need help with your homework?’, or ‘Can I explain anything in Swedish history to you?’ None of that. Beer tins, Yugo music, empty fridges and the Balkan war, that’s what we had at home.”

Home is a place of emotional frenzy. Ferocious arguments with parents are the norm. When Portnoy is six or seven, his mother threatens him with a knife when he won’t eat his dinner (“Only why? What can she possibly be thinking in her brain?”), and she regularly threatens to banish him from their flat for ever. Zlatan’s mother beats him with a ladle, and actually does banish his half-sister from her flat for ever. “We bear grudges and we exaggerate,” Zlatan explains.

. . .

'I am Zlatan' cover

Like many immigrants, Portnoy and Zlatan grow up under the shadow of a disaster happening in the old country. For Portnoy, it’s the Holocaust; for Zlatan, the Balkan war. Both boys sense mostly unspoken anxiety. Zlatan writes: “The war was something strange. I was never allowed to hear about it. I was protected … I didn’t understand why my mother and my sisters went around dressed in black. It was totally incomprehensible, it was like a fashion trend.” But he does know that his father’s Bosnian village was massacred and ethnically cleansed by Serbs. Early in Portnoy’s Complaint, 1941 is mentioned as the quasi-innocent date when Portnoy’s family moves from Jersey City to Newark. Later, however his sister reminds him where he would be had he been born in Europe: “Gassed, or shot, or incinerated, or butchered, or buried alive.”

Portnoy is an intellectual prodigy just as Zlatan is a sporting one, but neither man’s parents have the nous to guide his life-path. Like many ghetto children, both boys are caught between an old country and a new one, in neither of which they belong. No wonder they grow up angry. “That extended period of rage that goes by the name of adolescence,” muses Portnoy. He expresses his anger with words, Zlatan with words and violence. “I was aggressive,” Zlatan writes. “I pulled down trousers and held boys tight.” As his former headmistress once told a journalist: “I’ve been at this school 33 years, and Zlatan is easily in the top five of most unruly pupils we’ve ever had. He was the number one bad boy, a one-man show, a prototype of a child that ends up in serious trouble.”

Driven by adrenalin, both Portnoy and Zlatan become serial transgressors. Portnoy, famously, is a compulsive masturbator, and Zlatan a bicycle thief. After hearing that he is to join the first team of the local professional club, Malmö FF, he recounts, “I think I went outside and nicked a bicycle again, and I felt like the coolest guy in town.”

'Portnoy's Complaint' cover

Both men hide their crimes from their parents. Zlatan throws away a letter from the police before his father sees it; Portnoy locks the bathroom door. But whereas Zlatan embraces his inner bad boy with pride, Portnoy cannot: “Shame and shame and shame and shame – every place I turn something else to be ashamed of.” Portnoy fantasises about newspaper headlines exposing him to the world as a bad boy: “ASST HUMAN OPPY COMMISH FOUND HEADLESS IN GO-GO GIRL’S APT!”, et cetera. In Zlatan’s case, the media actually do frequently expose him. Even when he returns to the Swedish national team’s hotel an hour late after a quiet drink in Stockholm, it’s front-page news. He complains he can’t buy a carton of milk without the story making the newspaper.

Both men spend their youth feeling awkward, unsure of how to behave. They are at ease only in one place: the sports field. Portnoy’s game is baseball, where he masters every mannerism of the center fielder, so that he looks like a pro even though he’s not very good. He asks Spielvogel: “It’s true, is it not? – incredible, but apparently true – there are people who feel in life the ease, the self-assurance, the simple and essential affiliation with what is going on, that I used to feel as the center fielder for the Seabees?” The novel’s famous ode – “Oh, to be a center fielder” – helps elucidate why, in both the US and Europe, so many of the best athletes come from ethnic ghettos.

The ease and self-assurance envied by Zlatan and Portnoy belong – in their immigrant minds, at least – to the dominant native caste. The polite, restrained White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American ruling class of Portnoy’s childhood is scarcely distinguishable from the polite, restrained native Swedes of Zlatan’s. Indeed, in Roth’s later novels, “Swede” will become the ultimate marker of untroubled gentility: in The Professor of Desire (1977), the Jewish main character lives in a ménage à trois with two Swedish girls, and in American Pastoral (1997), the Jewish main character is known as “The Swede” because of his blond gentile ease. Portnoy and Zlatan feel looked down on and excluded by this caste. (It is perhaps ironic that among the vast number of literary prizes Roth himself has won, the one awarded by a committee of Swedes – the Nobel Prize for literature – has been denied him.)

. . .

Philip Roth in 1964©Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

Roth (in 1964) was a rising star of US fiction when his scurrilous third novel brought him national fame – and notoriety – in 1969

Both Zlatan and Portnoy yearn with wonder for that incomprehensible being: the blonde native girl who, miraculously, feels at home in the place where she lives. To attain her would be to conquer this alien society. But she seems unattainable. Zlatan recalls “being at the Borgar School in Malmö and seeing chicks in Ralph Lauren polo shirts and practically wetting my trousers when I wanted to ask them out”.

Thirteen-year-old Portnoy skates around a frozen local lake behind gaggles of gentile girls, and marvels: “The shikses, ah, the shikses … How do they get so gorgeous, so healthy, so blonde?” He dreams of skating up and introducing himself as a goy named Alvin Peterson. (“I have to speak absolutely perfect English. Not a word of Jew in it.”) But he is sure his big nose will expose his origins. Similarly, Zlatan (equally anxious about his own big nose) admits that hard as he tried in adolescence to dress like a posh Swede, he always ended up looking “Rosengård from top to toe”.

Both men first encounter the dominant native class aged 17: Portnoy goes to college in Ohio, Zlatan becomes a professional footballer. Gradually, through the medium of blonde native girls, they start to integrate. During Portnoy’s freshman year at college, he spends Thanksgiving in Iowa with the family of his gentile college girlfriend. Unused to Wasp etiquette, he is astounded when her father greets him before breakfast with the words, “Good morning.” It’s a phrase never heard in the Portnoy household. “At breakfast at home I am in fact known to the other boarders as ‘Mr Sourball’ and ‘The Crab’.”

Compare Zlatan’s wonder at his future partner, the perfect Swedish blonde Helena Seger: “She came from a model family from Lindesberg, one of those families where they say, ‘Darling, would you please pass me the milk?’, whereas we at table mostly just hurled death threats at each other.”

Ibrahimović with his partner Helena)©Corbis

Ibrahimović (with his partner Helena) depicts himself as a teenage misfit completely at odds with the land he was born in

To Helena, Zlatan is “a miserable Yugo, with a fast car and a gold watch … who played his music too loud”. She teaches him about fish knives and forks, and how to drink a glass of good wine. (It turns out you don’t down it in one like milk.) Portnoy briefly shacks up with a posh Wasp who “knew how to eat her dessert using two pieces of silverware (a piece of cake you could pick up in your hands, and you should have seen her manipulate it with that fork and that spoon – like a Chinese with his chopsticks! … )”

Gradually, success, native blondes and painfully acquired table manners raise Portnoy and Zlatan from the ghetto. Portnoy becomes “Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity”; Zlatan, the best ever Swedish footballer.

Their parents follow their sons’ ascent with awe. Soon after Zlatan turns pro with Malmö, he notices a greying man watching a training session from far away beneath some trees. His father – who had never bothered to watch him play when Zlatan was a kid – has finally shown up. Zlatan recalls, “‘Look,’ I wanted to shout, ‘Look! Look closely! Your son is a wonderful footballer.’” Soon, Zlatan writes, his father’s house “became a sort of museum of my career. He cut out every article, every little news item, and he still does.”

And here is his Zlatan’s twin across the water, Portnoy: “Whenever my name now appears in a news story in the Times, they bombard every living relative with a copy of the clipping. Half my father’s retirement pay goes down the drain in postage, and my mother is on the phone for days at a stretch and has to be fed intravenously …” The parents can enjoy the success only vicariously, because it’s difficult for the prodigal son to introduce them into polite society. When Zlatan flies his family to Dubai on holiday, his mother bops his brother Aleksandar on the head with her shoe in business class at 6am, and a brawl erupts. Helena doesn’t know where to look.

Zlatan buys the exact pink suburban house in Malmö that he had fantasised about as a ghetto teenager. He even wins the Jerring Prize, in which the Swedish public elects its favourite sportsman (usually some blond skier). The bad boy is moved to tears: no previous award had touched him as much. “Maybe I understood it as a sign … that I was truly accepted, not just as a footballer, but as a person, despite all my outbursts and my background.” He hasn’t merely become a great footballer. He has accomplished something just as difficult: he has become a Swede.

No wonder both men live the ideology of integration and anti-discrimination: it has enabled their own personal journey. Assistant commissioner Portnoy fights for the rights of others to leave their ghetto. As he informs an Israeli girl: “Who do you think got the banks to begin to recruit Negroes and Puerto Ricans for jobs in this city … ? To do that simple thing? This pig, lady – Portnoy!”

Zlatan, too, crusades against segregation. When he joins Inter Milan, he is disgusted by the set-up he finds in the changing-room: Brazilian players sit in one corner, Argentinians in another, and everyone else has their corner too. Zlatan understands people sitting with their friends, that happens at all clubs, but, “Here they did it on the basis of nationality. That was so primitive!” He tells the club’s president, Massimo Moratti, that the national cliques must go. These attacks on segregation are about the only views on society Zlatan expresses in his book.

Success doesn’t quite mean a happy end, though. Ghetto scars never go away. Portnoy ends his novel still very much in therapy with Spielvogel. Zlatan, playing for the great FC Barcelona, feels snubbed by Barça’s cold, courteous (almost Swedish) coach, Josep “Pep” Guardiola. Guardiola is a Catalan running a Catalan institution; Zlatan is the outsider. When Guardiola stops talking to him, Zlatan again feels “like that separate, difficult boy from the ethnic neighbourhood who didn’t really belong … It was just like in the juniors at Malmö FF.” After he finally throws an old-fashioned Portnoyesque tantrum at Guardiola, his fate at Barcelona is sealed.

Just as a generation of novelists told the story of Jewish America, and music the story of black America, the arts are now creating a narrative for the European immigrant experience. Zlatan was given a podium because he is a brilliant footballer, but there must be countless other second-generation kids sitting in their bedrooms around the continent, aching to tell their version.

-------------------------------------------

Simon Kuper is co-author of Soccernomics (HarperSport)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts