Sunday, March 31, 2013

Arnon Grunberg’s Relentless Tirza

Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza, which I read in Sam Garrett’s translation from the original Dutch, is a spectacularly compelling portrayal of a spectacularly awful personal breakdown. What makes Tirza work so well is that Grunberg doesn’t just offer a detailed psychological portrait of his main character—the hapless Jörgen Hofmeester—he also writes about societal and financial breakdowns that go far beyond just Hofmeester. At its core, Tirza is about fears. All sorts of fears.

Tirza takes it name from Hofmeester’s youngest daughter: Hofmeester is preparing food for Tirza’s high school graduation party when the book opens. There will be lots of homemade sushi. And there will be fried sardines, a Hofmeester specialty. The party turns into quite an event, partly thanks to the recent return of Hofmeester’s wife—who dresses tartily in her older daughter’s clothes—and partly because Tirza brings home her new boyfriend, with whom she’s about to fly to Africa. The boyfriend reminds Hofmeester of Mohammed Atta, a circumstance that will contribute to some very unfortunate consequences.

Grunberg’s intimately close third-person narrative gets inside Hofmeester’s sad head, describing his present woes and delving into his past problems, too, circling back and forth from past to present. It feels as if we learn everything about him, like how his wife left him (and their role plays, yow!), his mistake in collecting the rent from his upstairs tenant, and, especially, Hofmeester’s ideas of what is right. Living in the right place, portraying the right image, and all that. And then there’s Hofmeester’s obsession with Tirza, whom he calls his Sun Queen, repeating frequently that Tirza is gifted. Hofmeester has also been fired (sort of) from his job as an editor of translated fiction (hmm…), leaving him with nothing to do but spend his time at Schiphol, waving to passengers he doesn’t know and carrying around pencils to edit a manuscript from an Azeri author.
What a place to spend your days.
For those of us who read a lot of Russian literature, one of the funniest-saddest pieces of Hofmeester’s problems may be his interest in nihilism. Hofmeester’s the dad who reads Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to his daughter every night. Reviews from Tirza aren’t so positive:
“Go away,” she would shriek when he came into her room. “I don’t want any notes from under the ground, I don’t want to hear them. Go away, Daddy. Go away, just go away.” She fretted and fumed, but he would sit down on the foot end of her bed and read to her for fifteen minutes from Notes from Underground. You can’t start too early with an introduction to the great Russians. Catch onto nihilism as an adolescent and you won’t have to go through it yourself later on.
Hofmeester isn’t quite Dostoevsky’s underground man but he certainly is sick and spiteful and he certainly may have some liver problems, too, after all that wine he’s been drinking. Hofmeester worries that he’s superfluous, something that’s not much of a stretch after losing his job to his own lack of success, his wife to other men, and his children to adulthood. Worst of all, Hofmeester’s biggest problem is Hofmeester himself, “Hell was not other people. It was him. Hell was deep inside him. Tethered, hidden and invisible, but still alive, still warm. Glowing hot.”

I wrote “ouch” next to that passage and realized, as I paged through Tirza, that I’d scribbled “ouch” and “ha ha” in the margins far more than I usually do… Grunberg’s details about Hofmeester and his life combine beautifully, creating an unappealing character who becomes, like Dostoevsky’s underground man, predictably unpredictable, and Garrett’s translation reads very fluidly, creating a voice that compelled me to write all those ouches and ha has.

Up Next: Thorvald Steen’s Lionheart, a return to the Crusades.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Tirza from Open Letter Books, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating.

Photo credit: Cjh1452000, via Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Detectives Times Two: Ishiguro’s Orphans and Mishani’s File

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, the third Ishiguro novel I’ve read, has led me to start thinking of Ishiguro as the Meryl Streep of novelists: Ishiguro and Streep both seem capable of taking on any voice from any era. When We Were Orphans is, like Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a first-person narrative: private detective Christopher Banks tells the story of how his parents went missing when he was an expat child living in Shanghai in the 1910s, leaving him an orphan. He returns to find his parents in 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai.

What intrigued me most about When We Were Orphans was a fuzziness that begins with language: Christopher’s voice feels a bit formal, wordy, and distant, even in suspenseful allegorical action scenes during the Battle of Shanghai, when he’s trying to reach a house where he believes his mother is being held. He’s already missed his chance to leave the country with a woman who’s invited him to run away with her… she’s an orphan, too, and their attraction is a strange one that seems more predicated on aloneness than anything else. As Christopher sums up in the book’s last paragraphs:
But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
Most of the book describes Christopher’s chases after various shadows: from playing games in Shanghai with his neighbor Akira, a boy from Japan, to research in London about the Shanghai from which his parents disappeared, to the on-the-ground search for his mother when he’s an adult. With those chases comes the creation of personal myths. Those begin in childhood, too, with Akira touchingly reinventing the kidnappers as people who “took great care to ensure my father’s comfort and dignity in all our dramas” during the boys’ role play rescues of Christopher’s father. Christopher describes many aspects of his friendship with Akira in tremendous detail, including an episode where they take something from a servant’s room and dialogues in which Akira calls Christopher “old chap.”

Of course it turns out that not all Christopher’s memories are quite right—though some are surprisingly helpful—and being sentimental gets a bad rap toward the end of the book. But memories are transformative for Christopher, who took on his profession because he felt he had a responsibility to find justice: he sometimes sounds a little like he thinks of himself as a loner superhero. He even carries a magnifying glass. And he says detectives have “little inclination to mingle with one another, let alone with ‘society’ at large.”

Though I enjoyed When We Were Orphans for the almost ridiculously consistent voice Ishiguro creates for Christopher, insights into memory (fuzzy or otherwise), and Christopher’s lifelong existential wanderings, those good technical qualities occasionally made the book feel a little too surgically correct, too hermetically sealed within Christopher’s mind to be as interesting as it might have been.

If you’re looking for a straight-ahead international detective novel, you might want to try D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File, translated from the original Hebrew by Steven Cohen. Mishani’s police procedural novel tracks Avraham Avraham’s work on the case of a missing teenage boy: Avraham is (yet another) heavy-smoking bachelor detective with a territorial streak, and Mishani also gives him a penchant for watching Law and Order and a passion for analyzing detective novels. The Missing File moves along at a decent pace though a detour to Belgium feels a little like it was pasted in for a very specific reason and I thought a strange schoolteacher, one of the most developed characters in the book, caught a bit too much of Mishani’s attention. The novel is absorbing enough though, with some surprises at the end, and the narrative voice is spare in Cohen’s translation, which generally reads smoothly. The back cover of my book, by the way, calls Mishani “a literary scholar specializing in the history of detective literature,” which probably helps explain some of Avraham’s ideas on solving real-life and fictional crimes.

Up Next: Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza, a book I think I’d describe as a combination of “stupendous” and “stupefying.” In a good way. Then Thorvald Steen’s Lionheart.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Missing File from publisher HarperCollins, thank you!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh

Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh, which I read in Ruth Whitehouse’s translation of the Turkish novel known as Kelepir Ev (“bargain home” according to Google Translate), is the second in Aykol’s Kati Hirschel “Istanbul mystery” series; it follows Hotel Bosphorus, which Whitehouse also translated. I guess I’d call Baksheesh a moderately cozy detective novel that draws on multiple genres: Kati Hirschel, a German woman who speaks Turkish almost like a native, owns a mystery book store and, you guessed it, solves a murder herself.

It’s Kati’s search for what I think is the bargain home in the original Turkish title that leads her to pay the baksheesh in the English title… and to find her way to trouble. Kati meets the dead man when he is still very much alive, and she’s even considered a suspect in his death because she threw a ceramic ashtray (apparently a supremely heavy ceramic ashtray) at him, making his head bleed. The other Big Problem in Kati’s life at the time of Baksheesh is that she and her lawyer boyfriend aren’t getting along.

Alas, my biggest impression of Baksheesh is that Aykol wrote it for a very specific target audience: cosmopolitan woman (or perhaps aging Cosmo girls?) experiencing midlife angst due to relationship “issues,” the onset of wrinkles, and, yes, even impending menopause. Though Kati certainly needs to take herself out of contention for a murder charge, it felt that her conversations with a police investigator were as important for her to win compliments and propositions as for her to pump him for information about the case.

Aykol also includes, often rather awkwardly, a fair bit of cultural information in Baksheesh. Her details on how people dress, though, feel more like magazine writing than fiction: “Nowadays, all middle-class Turkish women wear shorts, miniskirts and tops with cleavage bursting out, even from high necklines.” There’s also a mention of the male habit of kissing female hands, plus details on clothes for mourning. The cultural background that comes through characters’ life situations—a family business that includes parking facilities or a pop singer’s quick career—tends to feel far more organic to the story than Kati’s commentaries.

Though I’m sure Baksheesh will find readers content with a light book about a plucky German woman living in Turkey, I wish Aykol had dug deeper when she created Kati’s character. I would have been more interested if she’d found something darker and more intriguing than superficial treatment of topics like aging, smoking, or a petty-sounding tiff with the boyfriend. Or, alas again, even the mechanical-feeling sleuthing.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Baksheesh from Meryl Zegarek PR; the book was published by Bitter Lemon Press. Thank you to both!

Up Next: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, then Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza.