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Arnon Grunberg: Tirza

This novel has finally been translated into English, after having previously been translated into nine other languages. We must be grateful to Open Letter for the translation. The book tells of Jörgen Hofmeester, a man who works for a publisher, lives in a house in a good neighbourhood in Amsterdam and is married with two daughters. He did not want children but loves his two daughters dearly, particularly the youngest one, Tirza. One day, three years before the book essentially starts, his wife packs a suitcase and walks out. There is no row. She takes very little and leaves much of her clothing behind. Ibi, the eldest daughter, does initially have some contact with her but that fades away. The three adapt well to life without her, with Ibi soon off to university to read physics, which she will abandon, to her father’s disgust, in order to run a bed-and-breakfast in France. Jörgen learns to cook and carries on with his life. He does not have another relationship (at least so we are initially told) but is happy living a low key life with Tirza, spending his evenings cooking and reading. One evening, when Jörgen is preparing dinner, there is a knock at the door. It is his wife. She is invited in and invited to join them for dinner. Tirza is vicious, damning her mother for leaving and wanting to have nothing to do with her. Jörgen is more conciliatory, though not entirely happy. When it is time for bed, he offers to let her stay and, to his surprise, she comes to bed, though she assures him that sex is not on offer. They start a row and Jörgen even gets violent, grabbing her by the neck. However, she points out that she was bored to death with him, never had an orgasm during their married life and has no desire to restart the relationship but only wants to see how the family is getting on. He retorts that he was never attracted to her but he felt that he needed a wife for his career and she looked suitable for the purpose.

The next day is Tirza’s birthday party. Jörgen has prepared a lot of food and five different cocktails. He is nervous when guests do not seem to arrive but, eventually, they do. However, there is one conspicuous absence – Tirza herself . Her sister has arrived, her mother is dancing with the young men but there is no sign of her. Meanwhile, we learn some more about Jörgen. We learn that he has been made redundant from his job at the publishing house. Because of his age, they could not fire him, so they will pay him for two and a half years, till retirement, but they do not want him to come him. The managing director points out that, though Jörgen has been there for thirty-three years, he has never brought in a profitable author. He has specialised in translations from Eastern Europe and Central Asia and all have made a loss for the house. He does not want to tell Tirza that he has lost his job so he continues to leave the house every day and soon finds that the best place to spend the day is at Schiphol airport. He remembers what one of his colleagues had said to him on a company boat trip. Jörgen, he asked, what do you live for?. Initially he is unable to think of an answer but finally says that he lives for his work and his daughters. Now that he has no work, he realises that he does not miss it in the slightest.

Tirza finally does arrive and she brings with her her new boyfriend, to whom Jörgen takes an instant dislike. He is called Choukri and is Moroccan. However, as far as Jörgen is concerned, he is Mohamed Atta or a close relative of Atta. Jörgen will continue to call him Atta throughout the book, to the consternation of his daughter. Jörgen is not only annoyed that his daughter is dating and planning to go to Africa with someone who looks like Atta but he blames Atta for the collapse of the hedge fund, in which he had invested his money, as the fund collapsed soon after 9/11. However, Choukri and Tirza head for Namibia. Jörgen waits to hear from them but nothing comes. Even his wife is getting worried. Eventually, he decides that something must have happened and off he goes to Namibia to find them.

What makes this book such a fine novel is the character of Jörgen. He is a man who is somewhat – but only somewhat – out of touch with his environment. He has clearly been doing the same job for thirty-three years and, during that time, seems to have made no friends at the company, had no career successes and not even really enjoyed the job. Nor does he seem to have any friends at home. His wife left him and returns only because, as she says, she has nowhere else to go. While his daughters love him, one has moved out and the other is about to do so. But we see this in his dealings with others – at Tirza’s party, with his tenants and with his daughter’s teacher. Poor Jörgen is simply one of those people who stumble through life without being aware that they are stumbling. Grunberg paints in great detail the ineptitude Jörgen shows – in his (fairly minimal) sex life and his dealings with his wife, his daughters (particularly when difficult situations occur), his boss and the guests at the party. He is at his happiest on his own – reading his newspaper (in great detail, as though it is a novel), reading the Russian classics, making sushi and sashimi. Though they are all different characters, Grunberg’s portrait reminds me of other hapless heroes in literature, such as
Ignatius J Reilly, Private Chonkin and The Good Soldier Schweik and Jörgen Hofmeester will join these and other heroes whose stumbles through life are superbly told and delight us as readers.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
First published in English by Open Letter in 2013
Translated by Sam Garrett