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.

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