Tirza opens with a man meticulously preparing sushi and sashimi for his daughter Tirza’s graduation party. Everything about Jörgen Hofmeester speaks routine and self-control. All this is rudely blown apart when the wife who left him three years ago turns up and seems to be settling in for an unlimited stay, seems also bent on eviscerating Jörgen with a ruthless ongoing analysis of all his shortcomings. Self-absorbed, emotionally invasive, given to reminiscing about her sex with “hunks”, the wife is an almost insanely annoying person, and at first we feel sorry for Jörgen, as well as impatient with him for not simply kicking her out. These scenes are brilliantly, cruelly funny and perceptive about marital relationships:
He stared at her as though she were a mouse he had found in the same mousetrap that had been in the same kitchen cupboard for the last twenty years, a trap no one had ever found a mouse in. And then, one morning, suddenly, there it is: a mouse. It’s unbelievable. You think you must be hallucinating. That it’s some kind of mistake. (87)
The bigger thing on Jörgen’s mind, though, is the impending departure of his adored 18-year-old Tirza for travels around Africa with a Moroccan boyfriend who reminds Jörgen of Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 terrorist. Not only does this stir up all his prejudices about how “they” hate “us”, but he blames Mohammed Atta for the collapse of the hedge fund into which he’s poured his savings. Oh, by the way, he’s also lost his job, or been put out to pasture, as an editor at “a prestigious publishing house”, as he’s fond of calling it. The scene in which the managing editor tells him they’ll pay his entitlements for the next two years until the statutory retirement age, but he needn’t bother ever coming to the office again, is masterly, both as satire and as character-revelation:
The look on the managing editor’s face was like that of a TV quizmaster about to hand a contestant first prize, but Hofmeester couldn’t believe that the editor really thought this was the first prize. No one would think this was the first prize.
“So what do you think of that?” the managing editor asked, “What do you say to that, Jörgen?”
Hofmeester did his best to look affable. For the first time in a long time he thought about his parents, and about his days at secondary school. It didn’t seem to matter how old you were, fifty-four, fifty-eight, sixty-two; once a beaten schoolboy had taken up residence inside you, and you hadn’t chased him away quickly enough, he stayed on. (140)
As the book goes on the apparently liberal and rational Jorgen is revealed, layer by layer, from inside and out, as a beehive of prejudice, bullying, graspingness, repressed violence and unhealthy sexuality. He has a persistent, corrosive sense of humiliation. Being a father, particularly to Tirza, his “sun queen”, is compensation to him for all the failures and inadequacies of his life, but this is the kind of father he is:
He used to read aloud to the children all the time, even from books they weren’t yet old enough to understand. To instil children with a love for art and culture, you have to make them stand on tippy-toe. At the age of ten, Tirza heard the adventures of Don Quixote, at twelve she was spoon-fed Madame Bovary and her adultery, at fourteen, when she didn’t want to be read aloud to any more, Hofmeester would climb the stairs to her room with a volume from the Russian Library under his arm. “Go away,” she would shriek when he came into her room, “I don’t want any more notes from under the ground, I don’t want to hear them. Go away, Daddy, just go away.” She fretted and fumed, but he would sit down on the end of her bed and caress her till she grew calm. Then he would open the book and read to her for fifteen minutes from ‘Notes from Underground.’ (181)
Even though Tirza is the entire focus of Hofmeester’s life, we can never really get a clear view of her. It’s as if he’s always standing in the way.
The final section is set in Namibia, where Jörgen goes to search for Tirza when she doesn’t contact them. The book has a blurb from Coetzee, and this part did remind me of Disgrace, not only in the quality of the writing about Africa, but in its unflinching eye on the human animal, and its painful tenderness.
The balance gradually shifts between Grunberg’s savage wit and the darkness of his intentions as the book goes on. He didn’t quite get this right, for me, in the second section of the book, the party, which goes on just a bit too long and seems less sure in its direction. But the last section, when the humour has well and truly gone, is a wonderful piece of writing that could almost stand alone.
A very gifted writer and a book that packs an enormous emotional punch. And yet…..the funny thing is, the more time passes from my finishing it, the more dissatisfied I feel. You know how some books seem to get truer the more you think about them? For me, this one doesn’t. It begins to come apart. Now why is that?