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Arnon Grunberg: Goede mannen (Good Men)

The eponymous good men are the the men of C squad, a firefighting squad in Heerlen in Limburg, in the Netherlands. Our hero is Geniek Janowski. Though he speaks Polish, he is fact Dutch. His father is Polish, his mother was German. He was born in Heerlen (also the birthplace of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard). His wife, Wen, describes it as the ugliest city in the Netherlands though he is happy there. Because of his antecedents, he has been nicknamed the Polack and everyone calls him that, even his wife and, indeed, he calls himself that.

The firefighter squad, according to them, the best squad, are a bunch of men who get on well together and stand by one another both when putting out a fire or rescuing a cat from a tree, but also in their personal lives. There is lot of male banter, a certain amount of racism (they are against immigration and fear Arabs taking over and threatening their women) and the odd practical joke but they are all friends. They did have a woman in the squad but she did not last long.

Polack as I shall call him as everyone else does, is one of those people who wants to do the right thing every time. However, that poses three problems. Firstly not everyone agrees on what the right thing is and, secondly, doing the right thing is, frankly, not always the right thing to do as he and we will find out. Thirdly, however hard we may try to do the right thing, we do not always do so. I want to be a good father and a good husband and at work I want to be a good fireman, he says but that is easier said than done.

Polack and Wen had two sons. Borys is by far the older. His younger brother Jurek, was very much an afterthought. Polack is somewhat detached from his father. His mother had died when she was only thirty-three. His father had eventually remarried and moved away and started a new family. Father and son only have limited contact.

Borys is a difficult child. He has no friends and does not seem to want any. He does not do particularly well at school. His teacher calls him sloppy. He has no interests and only seems to want to play with his little brother. What I really like most is just staying at home,” he told his parents. “I already go to school, so why do I have to go anywhere else?

In some respects he is like his father who does not have much to say for himself. When he and Wen go out for an anniversary dinner, Wen says to him Say something. I can’t take it anymore and she will complain of his silence again. The narrator comments on Borys he was above all quiet.

His parents are worried about him and it gets worse when, aged twelve, he starts defecating in his pants. He does not see it as much of a problem but his teachers and fellow pupils do, as it smells . Various things are tried – doctor, psychiatrist, bribery – all to no avail. Finally he says he wants a pony. With some reluctance Polack buys him a pony which is kept on a rundown farm. The farmer is handicapped and his wife has dementia but Borys regularly visits the pony in her stall. This seems to stop the defecating in the pants. However things do not work out either for Borys or, indeed, the pony. Borys dies and Polack feels, in honour of his son, he has to keep the pony to Wen’s horror, not least because of the cost. This causes considerable friction between them. However C Squad stand by him when Borys dies.

However the Polack cannot let go. Specifically he cannot let go of the donkey and follows in Borys’ footsteps by visiting it. Nor can he let go of the offer of comfort from the wife of one of his colleagues. A half-affair and turning to God do not help. He tries one last thing to help him get back into the groove. The modest life didn’t count anymore, there was no space for a life like that these days. The modest, the ordinary, the inconspicuous, that was what felt right to him. but, somehow, he struggles to achieve that. Everything he seems to do, as a husband, friend, father and so on seem to go wrong, Partially it is, of course, his fault. Like all of us, he makes poor judgements and, perhaps more particularly, he is what he is, the strong and silent type rather than the life and soul of the party and this comes across badly with many of the people he deals with.

Part of his problem is, as his wife says I knew that the past would never be over. That you drag it along behind you. He cannot let go of Borys and move on, cannot let go of his own feelings of guilt. Yet, with Jurek he does not seem to establish a good relationship either (growing up had made him sullen and moody). For the same reason, actually, that his father had once severed all contact with him; he smelled of death.

Grunberg really delves into the soul of a man who does not know his place, what his role in life is , who tries to be something that he is not. Is he a good man? Maybe,maybe not, but, like most of us he is clearly flawed and, as he discovers, so are his colleagues, who also claim to be good men but do not agonise over the issue the way the Polack does and gloss over their faults. God, romantic love, parental love, straightforward lust, friendship and collegiality do not help, so what hope is there for him?

Publishing history

First published in 2018 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
First published in English in 2023 by Open Letter
Translated by Sam Garrett