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.

Rupert: A Confession – A Review

Rupert: A Confession belongs to that genre of writing called the compulsive explainer, which features a narrator who is unable to control his need to explain the world, often in intricate detail, as he sees it even if it is in his best interest not to explain so much. It can be a difficult way of writing because the obsessions of the narrator can overwhelm a reader with the obscure or the tangential. To that compulsion Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer adds an unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator adds a different complication: how does one tell the reader the narrator is lying without the narrator having to explain the lie? Weaker writers will just have the narrator say two different things at two different times. Yet unless the narrator has gone through some shift the statements are forced or awkward. Why did the narrator sudden decide to say this? Is it because the writer needs to tell me the narrator is unreliable? Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares is an example of this. On the other hand, the narrator who does not know they are unreliable is the truly difficult and interesting approach because not only does it keep the character in character, it gives more work to the reader forcing her to puzzle out the unreliability from the clues within the story. Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy is a excellent example of this precision in characterization.

Pfeijffer successfully combines the two elements the obsessive and the unreliable to create Rupert. Rupert is on trial for something what it is isn’t clear, but what ever it is Rupert feels the need to explain his innocence in great detail. The detail, though, is not a counter argument of the facts, but a brief history of his affair with Mira and the days after. Rupert, though, is a pervert and he’d gets more pleasure in going to a peep show than actually having sex wit his girl friend. He is also quite graphic when he describes his encounter in the peep show and his dreams, and it is an obvious tip off that Rupert, despite his claims to the contrary, is not completely aware of what a courtroom nor society in general thinks is proper behavior. Telling a court that you are stalking an old girlfriend and still love her only suggests madness and violence. As the novel progresses Rupert becomes more obsessive, yet each time he makes the claim it is obvious he is only becoming more unhinged, losing grasp of the boundaries between desire and stalking.

The trial is the perfect contrasting device for the unreliability because Pfeijffer can let Rupert’s story, his obsession, flow naturally in Rupert’s voice. At first Rupert seems a little strange, but not manically obssesed, just a lonely man in a permissive country. As he goes farther into his story, though, it becomes obvious that what he is narrating is probably not true. The distance between how he has behaved in earlier scenes contrasts too heavily with the behavior he claims at the end.

Rupert: A Confession is a tense novel. The coming expectation of some great misdeed flows throughout the novel and over the last 30 pages the question is, is this what landed him in jail? To say what happened would ruin the novel, but the sense of coming disaster animates the book and keeps his obsessions from the tangential. Another source of the tension is the constant fixation of sex. Titillating, as Publishers Weekly said, is the wrong word for the seedy depths that Rupert visits as he seeks to fulfill his fantasies. Had his fantasies with Mira been reality and the reality non existent, the book would be titillating. Instead, coupling the violence and sense of foreboding confront the reader with questions: what happens when eroticism you are enjoying as a spectator (the reader) turns dark? Does it turn the former experience into a mistake, something shameful, or are they two different things? Ultimately, does using the surrogate, Rupert, for some distant enjoyment place one in the same dark peep show where Rupert first shows his obsessive side?

Rupert is also an architectural novel. Pfeijffer uses the city and the spaces within it as a way to distance Rupert from greater human contact. Rupert sees more in the city, its squares, its buildings, and can understand them better than the people in them. He knows how to analyze, not how to connect:

Fredo square is not like that, but it does its best. When it’s on form and happy because it’s being kissed by a sultry summer evening, it can mirror the perfection of the Palio. Then it can stop looking and smile like a brushing bride who embraces you and is grateful and all is well. She stretches herself out comfortably on the soft bed of the humming city, blissfully certain that she is loved.

Towards the end of the novel as Rupert is trying to find Mira in the winding streets of the old part of town, he blends the language of the erotic with the architectural, removing any humanity from Mira and turning her into an object. At the same time, though, the complex eroticism previously mentioned returns, because the city as Rupert sees it is truly erotic. The architecture becomes the reflection and the shape of the inhabitants, and as such is both beautiful and ugly, and in Rupert: A Confession, also a place for shame and titillation.

Rupert: A Confession is a brief novel, but in its 130 pages Pfeijffer is able to master one of the more difficult things in fiction, the unreliable narrator, and that makes it well worth the read.