Tirza by Arnon Grunberg – A Review

Arnon Grunberg
Open Letter, 2013, pg 471

There are some books that are good, but just not good to you. Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza falls into that category for me. Despite the high praise and the seemingly interesting story, the novel fell flat for me. Briefly, the novel is a bout a distinctly middle class literary editor and his family. He lives alone with his youngest daughter who is about to graduate from high school. As the book opens Jorgen Hofmeester is focused on putting together the best graduation party he can, complete with sushi grade tuna and fresh sardines. Then his wife returns after three years absence and unsettles his plans for the party. Her presence slowly brings out the dark side of his middle class facade. While the marriage was anything but perfect, the real shocker is his propensity to grab his wife by the throat and choke her. This the first of many hidden behaviors that show a man who is anything but ideal. We learn, too, that his relationship with his older daughter is bad because he insisted she go to college and she refused and married a black man and moved to France to run a bed and breakfast. The tensions he feels with the daughter is points to a larger tendency to be afraid of anything that is outside of his comfortable world. His only way to cope with such seeming problems is to either drink wine or use violence, both of which distance him from his family.

However, he still has his youngest daughter Tirza, who he loves, but when she introduces her new boyfriend who looks like Mohammad Atta and tells of their plans to go to Africa for the summer, he begins to loose control. He gets drunk at the party, insults the boyfriend, has sex with one of Tirza’s classmates in a shed, and is caught by his wife and a teacher. Tirza can’t understand why “daddy” would behave so badly. She begins to distance herself from him and leaves for Africa with Hofmeester longing for her love. Filled with fear for her safety, he immediately takes a flight to Namibia and begins a journey through the country, starting in the relative ease of the capital, Windhoek and journeying into the desert. Along the way he makes friends with a 10-year-old prostitute, or at least what seems to be one. She becomes a surrogate daughter as he drives around the country with her as traveling companion. Through her he gets to express his regrets to Tirza and find in the journey some sort of peace and salvation.

That brief sketch has promise, but what made the book drag form me was the detailed realism of the writing, where every detail of what Hofmeester was doing and thinking during the brief days surrounding the party explained. Middle class disasters no longer need to be explained in minute detail; it has already been done. Grunberg was certainly masterful in revealing the details little by little, making Hofmeester into more and more of a failure, not just a generational one that does not understand his children, but one that abrogates all the supposed norms of a middle class life. He is, in short, the typical hypocrite that all people are: do as I say, not as I do. This is fine, and, again, Grunberg is a very good writer and creates an interesting cast of characters, but it is a story that in such micro detail is more minutia than momentum. The trip to Africa was the most interesting, because the situations were more ridiculous and darker. Although the relationship between Hofmeester and the girl is a type of father-daughter, Grunberg shows the peril that that brings when he is kicked out of his hotel in Windhoek because he appears to be a pedophile. After the incident with the classmate, though, it is a fair question: a what point does Hofmeester subscribe to the codes of his middle class world? While that question lingers there, so does a tension between Dutch culture and those of the immigrants. Hofmeester’s journey to Namibia shows that despite his confusion with events in Holland, he still has a power when he walks in the old colony that he should not have. He is free to make zen journey’s into the desert without having to pay the price for anything. And after dragging the girl around with him, he leaves her at the airport saying he will return. I’m not so sure. All these adventures make for a troubling picture of a privileged man whose redemption (whatever that might be) is anything but secure.

Grunberg as a writer still interests me and I can see that he has great talent, but the micro thoughts of a middle class man harboring the dark secrets of the middle class is not particularly compelling. I’ve read it before. No, I haven’t read a Dutch version of it, and it is too bad I didn’t enjoy it more, but there is only so much of this topic I can take.