Arnon Grunberg
Complete Review,
2009-09-01, Complete Review


M.A. Orthofer

Tirza tells the story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a middle-aged man put out to pasture who is about to lose the last thing that gives his pathetic life any meaning any longer, his younger daughter Tirza, who is set to embark for Africa after graduating from high school. The long novel covers a relatively short time span, with some two-thirds of it devoted to the evening on which Tirza's graduation-party is held at the Hofmeester house, described in painful, painstaking detail by Grunberg. Few authors are as adept at moment-by-moment descriptions and (generally awkward) human interaction as Grunberg and in this novel he contains himself (unlike, for example, The Jewish Messiah, where he eventually runs amok), to quite stunning (and also disturbing) effect.
As Hofmeester arranges things – from his special cocktails to home-made sushi – and waits and waits, and then as the party itself gets rolling, Grunberg fills in the details of family life and history – sticking closely always to his hapless, hopeless protagonist. Things haven't been going his way for a while. Hofmeester's wife abandoned him and the two girls, Ibi and Tirza, three years earlier, for an old flame, but she returned to the fold a few days before the party – an unexpected and not much wanted guest, but baffled Hofmeester, who didn't know what to do when she left certainly doesn't know what to do now that she's back. Ibi has also long since flown the coop, though she shows up for the party too; this older daughter eluded Hofmeester early on (when he found her, still only fourteen, giving herself up to the upstairs tenant (who wasn't her first) – which he couldn't recognize or accept as a sign that maybe something was desperately wrong in the Hofmeester household).
Hofmeester has been saving up his money – putting some aside in a foreign bank account, making investments. He actually amassed a million, but then took up the bank's suggestion and invested it all in a hedge fund, and then all that money wasn't there any longer. He is still fairly well off, but his dreams of making his daughters' – and especially Tirza's – lives easier have been shattered.
Hofmeester has spent his life working as an editor – specializing in foreign literature – for a book publisher, but they've grown tired of him. They'd fire him if they could, but the labor laws make that impossible. But he is so dispensable that they just tell him to go home: they'll continue paying him until his official retirement, but for now they'd rather he didn't actually do any more work. Unwilling to admit his professional failure to anyone, he develops a new routine of commuting to Schiphol airport, and puttering around there for the day .....
The one light of his life, the one person who depends on him and whom he is devoted to, is darling Tirza. Exceptionally gifted, he always called her – until it turned out that maybe he was putting too much pressure on her, with his demanding schedule of cello-playing and swimming, and bedtime reading of Tolstoy, leading to her getting an eating disorder. In a rare moment of actually taking the incentive he does the right thing to help her there – but he's incapable of being entirely the kind of father-figure she needs. Still, the two get along and have a strange but affectionate relationship, convincingly conveyed by Grunberg.
But Hofmeester is about to lose this one, last hold. Tirza has her heart set on going to Africa before she begins her studies. This party is pretty much her farewell.
Tirza also plans to go with her boyfriend, whom her father has never met. Tirza often brought boys home, even for the night, but this is more serious.
The party begins with Tirza off somewhere picking up her boyfriend, and things are already long underway by the time they arrive. It's no surprise that Hofmeester doesn't take to the guy taking away his little princess, but when he sees the guy he nearly cracks: he thinks Choukri is the spitting image of September, 2001 terrorist Mohammed Atta (whom he also blames for the collapse of the hedge fund with all his savings). Indeed, that's how Hofmeester continues to refer to her daughter's boyfriend.
Things don't go well at the party, but for the most part it just amounts to minor party catastrophes. And afterwards Hofmeester continues to clutch at straws – and tries, in his own way, to come to grips with everything. In his misguided efforts he even offers to drive the couple to the Frankfurt airport for their flight, stopping off in their vacation home for the weekend first .....
Hofmeester does try, but he's constantly losing his grip. After he returns home from the weekend expedition he can't leave be, and insists on following the couple: he flies down to Namibia, to follow their trail. His misadventures there verge on the uncomfortably grotesque, yet Hofmeester's sins are not those that everyone he encounters assumes: for once he does some good, and manages, briefly, to provide comfort. But he doesn't find Tirza and Choukri.
Grunberg very adroitly reveals what has happened, in a devastating twist that you wouldn't think could be pulled off. Hapless Hofmeester turns out to be both a much better man, and a much worse one, than he seemed. But the cascade of events took a terrible wrong turn, and out of it comes complete ruin; Tirza is completely heartbreaking.
In his youth Hofmeester toyed with the idea of doing away with love – a concept as outmoded as god, he thought. Love certainly failed him, beginning with the woman he picked to be his wife, entirely wrong for him. He could and did love his daughters, but it overwhelmed them: Ibi escaped as soon as she could, but Tirza remained close enough for some sort of lasting (if often uneasy), semi-happy relationship to be maintained. But then Tirza, too, wanted to stake out her independence, and Hofmeester was incapable of handling it.
Grunberg gives Hofmeester an opportunity for redemption, of sorts, but redemption does not come easy. Hofmeester tries, again, but just leaves another shattered soul in his wake. It's never for want of trying that he can't find or hold onto love; as well-meaning as he can be, it's simply not in him to do it right.
Hofmeester is not a particularly sympathetic character, but his flaws are human and plausible; so too are, in his desperation, his actions, even as they go beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Grunberg's penetrating character study is no pleasant tale (though there is a good deal of humor in it too), but, in its horrifying inevitability (and Grunberg's willingness to allow his character to plunge without finding any hold) absolutely compelling.
The action in Tirza takes place within a relatively short time-frame, and in it Grunberg captures perfectly what has become of this man, and how he got to this point. It is not always an agreeable read, but an exceptional one.