“Parental love is the sacrifice made in silence,” says Jorgen Hofmeester, the protagonist of “Tirza,” Arnon Grunberg’s latest translated novel. In “Tirza,” the quiet martyrdom of parenthood rubs up against the banality of bourgeois life. Sacrifices go un-repaid and parents struggle as their children begin to spin beyond their orbit and their own carefully tended lives are revealed as hollow.
Grunberg is a major Dutch writer, turning out nearly a book a year, often to high praise and controversy. Born in 1971, the son of a survivor of Auschwitz, he was expelled from high school. No matter: His first bestseller came at age 23. His novel “The Jewish Messiah” is about the grandson of an SS officer who converts to Judaism, becomes Israel’s prime minister and sells the state’s nuclear weapons to Hamas.
Grunberg won the Anton Wachterprijs, a Dutch prize for a first novel, and won the award again six years later for another novel, “The Story of My Baldness,” which he published under a pseudonym.
He can be very funny, but his humor — satirical and discomfiting — is more about upsetting a reader’s equilibrium than pure entertainment.
“Tirza” is a rather sober novel, but it’s a formidable work. It’s the story of Jorgen Hofmeester, an editor at a publishing house in his late 50s, whose life is unraveling. It’s 2005, and Hofmeester has been let go from his job. Except not precisely: Because of labor laws, Hofmeester’s bosses aren’t able to fire him. But finding him useless, they tell him to take more than two years of paid leave, until he’s eligible for retirement.
Meanwhile, Hofmeester’s wife has suddenly returned after abandoning the family for three years. She arrives in time for a graduation party for their daughter, Tirza.
Tirza is smart and independent (“she’s extremely, extremely gifted” becomes Hofmeester’s oft-repeated mantra). Hofmeester is obsessed with her, suffering from a version of what Kate Chopin called “the joy that kills.” This overweening affection may be his undoing.
Skillfully and slowly, Grunberg reveals Hofmeester as a taciturn, comically stoic man, one who entered a loveless marriage because it seemed like an adequate complement to his career, and also a man who contains a hidden violence, which Hofmeester calls “the beast.”
For years, this kind of life worked. True, he has no friends — “he is built for loneliness” — but he sustains himself with hard-bitten bromides, such as that dignity is “the crux of all morality.” His dignity is matched by a quasi-aristocratic reserve, which causes him to put up with all manner of cruelty and disaster. When his employer gives him a pair of socks in recognition of 20 years of service, he adds them to his wardrobe. When his life savings evaporate in the wake of 9/11, he hardly says a word to the Swiss banker who misled him.
But Hofmeester can cope only up to a point, and his wife’s return, along with his other recent misfortunes, reveals that he is somehow more of a victim and more guilty than he once believed. Uncomfortable family history bubbles to the surface, particularly Hofmeester’s suffocating devotion and his fear of sex. Once content to be his partner of convenience, his wife is newly defiant and reckless, getting drunk and publicly making out with one of Tirza’s friends at a party. Hofmeester has a liaison with another teenage guest, but secretly, in a toolshed. “Shame needs other people,” Hofmeester knows, and so the beast finds refuge in the dark.
There’s no religion in Grunberg’s novel — along with his humor, Grunberg’s shed his Jewish themes — but it’s hard not to see some biblical resonance. Tirza is named after Tirzah, who appears in the book of Numbers and whose name is often translated as “my delight.” When her father, Zelophehead, died, Tirzah and her four sisters approached Moses and asked him to allow them to inherit their father’s property. Moses in turn went to God, who assented to the request, thus introducing egalitarianism into Jewish inheritance.
Tirza Hofmeester is her father’s delight and his heir. His million-euro nest egg was supposed to afford her opportunities, fulfilling the great potential he saw in her. But that, of course, is gone, and only a yawning chasm remains, leaving them all unprotected. As he reflects, “through Tirza I saw the world as it is, dangerous, dangerous through and through. Hostile and irrational.”
In the novel’s last section, set in Namibia where Tirza is traveling with her boyfriend, Hofmeester goes in search of his daughter, as he hopes to make one last stand against this dangerous world, one supreme effort to justify his quiet sacrifice. Grunberg laces this section with a stunning twist; it erupts before the reader with the sudden torque and violence of a land mine. Suffice it to say that, in the case of Hofmeester, the beast can not always stay in the dark.
Silverman is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate and many other publications.
Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett
Open Letter: 471 pp., $16.95 paper