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Arnon Grunberg: Onze oom [Our Uncle]
This novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country where there is a war on terrorism and where the military are happy to use extralegal methods. The book starts with Major Anthony – he seems to use only his first name – involved in an extralegal operation. He is called Anthony because his father was a keen anglophile. Indeed, in Anthony’s view, he loved England more than he loved his son. Anthony is married to Paloma. Anthony considers the marriage a happy one but Paloma does not. They have not been able to have children. To make up for this, Anthony has had a swimming pool installed. He thinks this is a good substitute for having no children. Paloma’s substitute is to have an affair with his boss, the Lieutenant-General, whose name is Raúl, but insists that Paloma calls him Lieutenant-General, even in the heat of passion. Paloma had worked as as travel agent but now anyone who can travel has left the country, so she is out of a job.
The particular operation Major Anthony is leading at the start of the novel is the arrest of two suspected terrorists. Major Anthony is not well liked and is given all the dirty jobs, which he carries out willingly. He and his three men arrive early in the morning,with the plan to storm in at 3 a.m., a good time, as it tends to catch people unprepared and unable to resist. However, the operation goes wrong. When they burst into the bedroom of the married couple they are to arrest, the man, caught unprepared, reaches for his glasses. The corporal, thinking he is reaching for a gun, shoots, killing the man and injuring the woman. The major has him finish the job off. However, he has found that they have a daughter. He eventually finds out her name – Lina – and decides that, now that she has no parents, she would be an excellent daughter for him and his wife, so he takes her along, noting on the record that she has been killed. His wife, to his horror and surprise, is not the slightest bit interested and, indeed, objects vociferously. However, as she is left with the child while he returns to work, she takes her along to the hairdresser. There, everyone, including the hairdresser, dotes on the child and the hairdresser even gives her a free haircut, cutting off her beloved pigtails. Despite this, she is adamant that she does want Lina as her daughter.
Major Anthony has made a proposal that a force be sent to the North of the country where the rebels have taken control and where the army outposts are outnumbered and in need of help. The Lieutenant-General at first rejects the idea as being impractical but then reconsiders and agrees if Major Anthony leads the convoy, which he is willing to do. He tells Paloma that he will only be absent for a couple of weeks. However, things go wrong from the start. The soldiers that he is given are clearly inexperienced. Once they arrive in the Northern area, the lead vehicle seems to hit a mine and is badly damaged, with the occupants killed – Major Anthony finds a hand. It is at this point that they realise that the body bags have been forgotten. When another vehicle hits a mine and a soldier is injured but could be saved with proper medical treatment, we learn that the doctor who was meant to come did not come because he was ill. The men now start to urge Major Anthony to turn back. He refuses. Things get steadily worse.
Meanwhile, things are not going well for Paloma. She is wondering where her husband is and where her lover is. Eventually, she contacts her lover and he agrees to come but, by then, it is too late. Lina has decided that she wants to find her parents. She has observed the streets when on the school bus or out driving with the Major, Paloma and their housekeeper and she sets out one afternoon to find her parents. She finds a park and spends the night on a clean bench. When she awakes, there is a group of street kids surrounding her. It is they who take her to her former house. It is now occupied by another couple who know nothing about Lina’s parents and throw her out. They suggest that she goes to the Resettlement Bureau and the street kids help her get on a bus what will take her there. However, when she arrives, she is asked for her ID card by a soldier. When she cannot produce it, a man rescues her and, eventually, takes her to a place out of town, where many of the men work in a gold mine She joins them and lives there for for some time. Eventually, she gets involved with the Organisation, where she meets a man known only as The Leader. She goes to live with him and his wife, Carlotta, and has a son by him.
The four main characters of this novel can all be said to be stereotypes. Major Anthony is the stereotypical military officer who obeys orders, believes in the mission of the military and lives only for the military. The Lieutenant-General is somewhat different, more realistic and more pragmatic but also focussed on his career and personal needs as much as the needs of the military, perhaps a typical somewhat bumbling, somewhat oversexed ambitious military man, with political aspirations. Paloma is your stereotypical sex-and-shopping wife, interested in sex (extramarital), shopping and her friends (primarily to impress them). She shows no concerns for anyone else – her husband, Lina or the housekeeper – and only shows an interest in the Lieutenant-General for what she can get from him. Lina is the most interesting character but she remains something of a victim throughout. Apart from the one time she breaks out to look for her parents, as she herself says and as the German title indicates, she is always under someone else’s charge – her parents, the Major, the street kids, the man who rescues her, her new step-family and, finally the Leader. When she finally learns that both she and her family have been officially declared dead, she states, on more than one occasion, that she herself is dead. Despite these four seemingly stereotypical characters, Grunberg has written a very long and complex novel and clearly one of his better ones. Given that it has been translated into French and German and several other of his works have been translated into English, I would hope that it will eventually be translated into English.
First published in 2008 by Lebowski
No English translation
First published in French as Notre oncle by Actes Sud in 2011
First published in German as Mitgenommen by Diogenes in 2010