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The inciter

Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program Open Books in Chicago (www.openbooksradio.org). Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

Expelled from high school in Amsterdam, Arnon Grunberg rapidly became a literary wunderkind and enfant terrible. The author of audacious tragicomedies, he won a prestigious award, the Netherlands’ Anton Wachter Prize for debut fiction, twice, although initially no one realized it. In 1994, at age 23, Grunberg received the award for “Blue Mondays.” Then, in 2000, a Viennese writer, Marek van der Jagt, who had been attacking Grunberg and other Dutch writers in the press for being frivolous, won the prize for his first novel, “The Story of My Baldness.” Except that Van der Jagt was actually Grunberg.

Twice a recipient (as himself) of the AKO Literature Prize, which is the Dutch equivalent of the British Man Booker Prize, this transgressive, bestselling, prolific, gimlet-eyed scamp once again raises the controversy quotient. In his eighth harrowing novel, “The Jewish Messiah,” Grunberg, the son of Jews from Germany, detonates the promise of a Jewish messiah and satirizes the persistence and insidiousness of anti-Semitism and the dire consequences of malignant messianic missions.

The story of Xavier Radek, a handsome and eerily cooperative young man, is anchored in orderly and prosperous Basel, Switzerland, which, behind its scrubbed facade of neutrality, harbors reprehensible crimes, among them the laundering of the Nazis’ ill-gotten riches. While “borrowing money from his mother without asking,” Xavier, 16, discovers his own family’s Nazi secret: His maternal grandfather, whom he resembles, was an enthusiastic and hard-working SS officer. A curious revelation, given that Xavier has been visiting a synagogue and pondering the nature of suffering and those he dubs the “enemies of happiness.” Accepted as a Jew, albeit a super-assimilated one, he is invited to dinner at the rabbi’s house. But the rabbi also turns out to be a fake, and his son Awromele, the eldest of 13 children, cheerfully reveals his fondness for smutty jokes.

Xavier is undaunted. He has found his people and his calling: “He had to comfort the Jews.” He falls madly in love with blithe Awromele, who arranges an “illegal circumcision” so that Xavier can fully claim his “Jewishness.” The mohel, or circumciser, turns out to be nearly blind and, in gory slapstick scenes, botches the operation. After dragging his mauled self home, Xavier nearly dies, thanks to his wacko mother’s refusal to help him. When she and her dimwitted boyfriend, who lusts after Xavier, finally bring the mutilated teenager to the hospital, it’s too late to save his left testicle. But no matter, Xavier keeps it in a jar and names it King David. He also becomes famous as the good people of Basel rise up and punish the poor schlub of a mohel in an anti-Semitic frenzy. Xavier takes up painting -- creating portraits of his neurotic, coldhearted mother holding his testicle -- and fantasizes about how he and Awromele can run away together and proceed with their project to translate “Mein Kampf” into Yiddish.

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Religious Jews will not speak God’s name. In the Radek household, it’s Hitler who is referred to as You-Know-Who, the icon of evil with whom Grunberg wickedly aligns his passive-aggressive young hero, from his magnetic dark eyes to the missing testicle, minor artistic talent yoked to rampant megalomania, and a foul obsession with Jews. Xavier wants to be their healer even as he thinks that “the Jews might have nothing, but at the same time they had everything. They had a country of their own; they had nuclear weapons, too; they had Einstein and Billy Wilder.” When he and Awromele are caught in the woods in flagrante delicto (their first time) by Kierkegaard-spouting thugs, Xavier again fails in his self-appointed role as savior and runs away, leaving his Jewish lover to learn the percussive “language of feet” applied with expressive vigor to his head, ribs and stomach.

Xavier finally returns to the scene of the crime the next day and, in a burlesque of ineptness and penance, loads his mangled beloved into a wheelbarrow. He does, after all, want to forgive the chosen people one by one for “all the wrongs they had committed throughout the centuries. For the guilt they had imposed on others. For the almost unforgivable guilt they had imposed upon themselves, by being born.” With forgiveness like that, it’s just a few steps back to the Holocaust.

After a messy sojourn in Amsterdam, during which Awromele is wildly unfaithful, the couple immigrate to Israel. There the Jew who can’t say no continues his sexual adventures, while Xavier takes up photography, then turns himself into a politician. With King David-in-a-jar at his side and dirty tricks up his sleeves, Xavier becomes prime minister of the Promised Land.

Grunberg is a master of stealthy wit, land mine-like understatement, whiplash dialogue and lacerating social commentary. Every character is brought to excruciatingly vivid life in sharply etched if ludicrous scenes of menace, subterfuge, grotesque psychosis and diabolical cruelty. Each shrewdly constructed and unnerving encounter is designed to expose hypocrisy, guilt, pain, ignorance and unreason, the chemistry of inhumanity. While Grunberg’s absurdist parody is devilishly clever and robustly ironic, it is too grim and freighted for laugh-out-loud humor. One is more dismayed than amused when Xavier’s mad and murderous mother achieves sexual release with a large bread knife. Or when Xavier, infuriated by Awromele’s relentless infidelity, nearly rapes and murders a young man, and performs a potentially brutal act on a woman. The nihilistic Kierkegaard gang is mordantly funny, but not when it attacks one of Awromele’s sweet little sisters. And the reader won’t soon forget the pages on which a dignified Egyptian restaurant owner who has been sending money to Hamas is tortured.

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The reader will be sickened, enraged, titillated and/or fascinated, while Grunberg’s heroes recite a mantra of indifference. At the height of passion Xavier gasps, “I don’t feel anything. Not now, and not ever. I’ve never felt anything.” Awromele sums up their relationship: “We don’t feel anything. That’s why we’ll always be together.” Their anxious denial of pleasure and love reflects the fears and numbness of society at large. The catastrophic failure to be compassionate. The fact that what we profess to hate is often what we’re drawn to. Xavier admits, “He wasn’t sure where aggression ended and tenderness began, he didn’t know where death began and life ended, he no longer knew whom he hated more, himself or the boy lying on the moist ground and the apple cores.”

Grunberg rejects self-serving existentialism, confronts real-world torture, genocide, terrorism and personal crimes of the heart, and he infuses his visceral, wily satire with biblical fury. In a barbed, some would say blasphemous, perversion of a vision of the Jewish messiah, Grunberg not only turns his false messiah into a Hitler caricature, but he also recasts the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan, ardent friends whom some scholars believe were also lovers. Xavier tells his severed testicle that he’s going to call it King David because “King David was the King of the Jews, and someday you will be, too.” And, indeed, as the action accelerates precipitously in the final sections, Xavier, as Israel’s demented prime minister, meets clandestinely with the weary leader of Hamas, who wants only to dally with Awromele. When Xavier finally loses all restraint and drives the world toward nuclear disaster, Grunberg’s speculative tale turns overtly apocalyptic.

Grunberg’s sly take on the perpetuation of Hitler’s terrible power stands in intriguing contrast to the many fictionalized portraits already on the shelf, including “The Castle in the Woods,” in which Norman Mailer, a king among literary provocateurs, presented a sexually intrepid, mythic version of Hitler’s boyhood. Now Grunberg -- mocking and macabre, explicit and analytical, and clearly disgusted by the distortion of religion and philosophy to justify hate and violence -- aims to outrage readers to awaken moral indignation. Internationally renowned, especially among younger readers -- a standing fueled by his journalism, blog and travels to Guantanamo and Afghanistan -- Grunberg has as much talent as chutzpah and, beneath the absurdist vamping, a longing for justice, integrity and hope. With more books in line to be translated into English and more in the works, Grunberg, nearly past the bad-boy phase, will remain a caustic, goading and vital literary force if, as seems likely, he moves beyond puerile shock tactics and creates books of deeper resonance and more profound empathy.


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