In his sixteenth novel, Arnon Grunberg returns to the preoccupations of his early work, featuring chaotic, self-destructive, non-conformist types and compulsive runaways, people who treat life as a game, raising the stakes in each new round. Death in Taormina takes place in the world of opera and theatre, a world in which the protagonist Zelda becomes entangled in a fatal game between reality and fiction.
Zelda is a young woman in her mid-twenties, the product of an unsettled childhood, shuttling back and forth between divorced parents. For a while she works as a ‘decoy’ for a youth gang, drawing in older men who are then robbed by gang. Eventually, on promising her father to no longer play so fast-and-loose with life, she takes a job as production assistant to an opera director.
In the second of the novel’s five parts, this absurdist coming-of-age story slowly morphs into an account of a crazy love triangle. Zelda grows fascinated by Jona, a much older, successful actor whose life is nothing short of bizarre. He tells her that he is his mother’s ex-lover, that he’s an insomniac and that he’s been driven from his home and has been living as a ‘tramp of the well-off variety’ ever since. Lost souls both, Zelda and Jona hanker after adventure. They become friends with Per, a young playwright from Stockholm who ‘wanted to grow old as quickly as possible and get to know evil’. With him, they travel to Taormina, in Sicily, for the book’s apotheosis: Per drowns Zelda in the bathtub after which she continues her story in a voice-over from the grave.
Death in Taormina is an ironic, provocative novel in which life is like a stage play. There is a touch of Jules et Jim about it, and it nods to Antigone and Thomas Mann.
Also available as an audiobook.