Thursday 5 June 2014

'Tirza' by Arnon Grunberg (Review)

The last few months on the blog have been taken up with two major projects, shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and plunging into the world of translated Korean fiction (and two very good projects they are too).  However, when you devote so much time to particular areas, it's inevitable that something will fall through the cracks, and today's book is one I really meant to get to a good while back - even before it got longlisted (then shortlisted) for the Best Translated Book Award.  Still, better late than never...

Arnon Grunberg's Tirza (translated by Sam Garrett, e-copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) is a fascinating novel, a story of a man's disintegration in the face of events he is unable to control.  The man in question, Jörgen Hofmeester, is a Dutch editor who has been put out to pasture by his employers.  He still receives his pay, but he no longer actually has to go to work, a state of affairs which has thrown his world out of balance.

That's not the only change he has to cope with.  His wife, who walked out on him three years earlier, recently turned up on his doorstep and has walked back into his life as if little has happened in the meantime.  While Jörgen is struggling to adapt to her return, another impending change is causing him even more angst.  His beloved eighteen-year-old daughter, Tirza, having just graduated from high school, is planning to travel around Africa for a few months with her latest boyfriend.  Jörgen decides to throw a party for her before she leaves, but it's at this party that all of his problems finally catch up with him...

Tirza is a novel about a man whose life is slowly falling apart, and what happens at his daughter's party is partly the result of past events, and partly the catalyst for what's to come:
"Tirza has thrown parties before, but tonight is different.  Like lives, parties can be a failure or a success.  Tirza hasn't said it in so many words, but Hofmeester senses that a great deal depends on this evening.  Tirza, his youngest daughter, the one who turned out best.  Turned out wonderfully, both inside and out."
p.8 (Open Letter Books, 2013)
The comment is rather prescient.  A lot will happen during the party, not all of it for the good - the course of the future is set here...

While the novel is named after the daughter, it's the father who is at the centre of everything, a man in the midst of great change.  Hofmeester is a man who lives life by the book, and these life-altering events, particularly the return of his runaway wife, cast him adrift on a sea of uncertainty:
"He didn't understand the reason for this visit, and Hofmeester was a person who wanted to understand things.  He detested the irrational, the way other people detest vermin." (p.15)
Add to this the disappearance of his retirement money, swallowed up by post-9/11 stock-market fluctuations, and you can see that Hofmeester isn't exactly in a good place.

The reader is initially sympathetic towards Jörgen, feeling pity for the confused, abandoned husband.  However, it soon becomes clear that he's really not that nice at all.  He's violent towards his wife, a dictator with his children and penny-pinching (to the point of fraud) with the tenants in the flat upstairs.  The key to understanding Grunberg's book is solving the puzzle he has set for the reader as to what kind of a person his main character actually is.

His experiences with sex provide an interesting window into his psyche.  The relationship with his wife is certainly unusual, based on a mutual loathing and violent 'games', and he looks for satisfaction elsewhere, including with his cleaner.  His attraction to the forbidden, especially what he sees as 'dirty' women, will confront him at the party, in the form of one of Tirza's classmates.  And as for his rather close relationship with his younger daughter...

What Grunberg does well here, though, is create a much more rounded figure than the above would suggest - Jörgen's's by no means a complete monster.  While his wife (justifiably) complains about Hofmeester's lack of understanding, she is a piece of work herself - a flirt, an absent mother, an artist for whom domestic duties simply don't exist.  This leaves Jörgen trying to raise two daughters he doesn't really understand, a clueless father struggling in unfamiliar waters (anyone who thinks reading Tolstoy to a teenage daughter will help with emotional issues really is lost).  These human touches help to make him a complete character and allow the reader to empathise - at times.

The real beauty of the book is the way in which Grunberg constructs his scenes, putting two people together in a seemingly-normal conversation, one which turns uncomfortable and just won't end, no matter how much we'd like it to.  The writer simply won't let the reader go, forcing them to read on, squirming in their seat, and the novel is packed with these lengthy, gripping, horrible scenes.  If it's painful to watch, imagine what it must be like for the characters. 

Tirza is very skilfully written, with an excellent translation which captures the feeling of subtle horror nicely.  Throughout the book, there are scattered hints of what's to come, with clever parallels and echoes of future events.  One obvious one was:
"The remains of his life stretch out before him like a desert." (p.79)
Knowing that Hofmeester will be heading off to Africa at some point lends this chance comment extra significance...  However, it's the little mentions of racism, money, violence and Hofmeester's lovelife which are more intriguing as Grunberg casually places clues as to how things might (or might not) play out.

In short, Tirza is a wonderful book about a very strange man, not a figure you'd like to have in your family.  One book it shares features with is Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast, with its focus on a tyrannical father figure.  However, Grunberg's novel is a much longer, more in-depth examination of the pater familias, placing him at the centre of the novel, rather than in the wings.  Strangely enough, though, despite his prominence in the book, Jörgen Hofmeester actually prefers to stay away from the limelight, even at his own parties:
"Hofmeester is standing in the middle of the room with the platter in his hand.  He feels invisible.  Not an unpleasant feeling.  He's there without being there.  The man no one notices, that's what you might call him.  And oddly enough, he is proud of that." (p.217)
It's always the quiet ones you have to be careful of...