The real world’s outside your door
By way of Sam Garrett’s gut-punching translation, Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza is easily one of the most psychologically disturbing reads to come along in this, or any recent year. So much so that there’s no adequate way to prepare a potential reader for what they’re about to be exposed to without spoiling any major plot points, other than to say: “You’ve been warned.”
Grunberg’s Golden Owl award (the Dutch equivalent of the UK’s Booker Prize) winning novel focuses in on the life of Jorgen Hofmeester. Up until recently this fifty-something year-old father of two has been working as an editor of translated literary fiction, but now he’s been put out to pasture. The publishing house is ready to set out in a bold new direction and they neither desire nor require his assistance any longer. Legally he’s too old to fire, so his employer has agreed to pay out his remaining years in exchange for him packing up his things and promising never to return.
Things at home aren’t faring much better. Hofmeester’s oldest daughter Ibi (short for Isabella) has recently decided to nix her plans of pursuing a college education in favor of running off to France with her boyfriend to start a bed and breakfast. His youngest daughter Tirza is about to graduate high school and plans to travel abroad to Africa with her boyfriend before returning to resume her schooling. His unnamed wife has been out of the picture for three years. Hofmeester fears that soon he will be left alone and directionless.
However just a few short days before Tirza’s graduation party, his wife unexpectedly returns. Though the two are quite hostile towards one another, Hofmeester welcomes her back into the home as if she had never left. She is, after all, the mother of his children. The entire first section of the novel proceeds to paint a family portrait of the Hofmeesters life for the reader. It’s far from a pretty picture.
Much like Herman Koch’s The Dinner (which Garrett also translated), Grunberg’s novel questions the importance of the role that family plays in our lives. Koch’s novel focuses on just how far an entire family would be willing to go in order protect one of their own. In Tirza however, the perspective given is primarily from that of a father who feels as though he’s done everything he possibly could to give both his children better opportunities than he himself had, but is ultimately rendered powerless as he’s forced to watch them grow and make their own decisions about how their adult lives should be lived. It’s a relatable pain point for anyone with children of their own.
There’s something magical about having a child that marks a significant change in a person’s life. The focus is no longer on what they can achieve and instead shifts to caring for the future of this new life. For eighteen years this child will remain the center of attention. It will have the hopes, dreams, and expectations of its parents pinned upon it. But what happens when that child who has selfishly taken for its entire life defies those expectations and insists on pursuing a different path? Has the parent somehow failed? Do they have a right to be disappointed or are they expected to continue to be supportive even if they don’t agree with the choices being made? Just what is the return on that eighteen year investment supposed to be? And what happens when the child reaches equal footing with the parent and realizes that they are human just like everyone else?
Grunberg’s novel twists and turns and turns the reader’s perceptions of each member of the Hofmeester family as it continually questions the ties that allow family members to enable certain behaviors between one another. It surprises throughout, never allowing the reader a chance to feel comfortable, and never allowing them to guess where the story is headed.
Tirza offers up a difficult, disturbing journey, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of both the power of family and the lengths that we’re willing go to as parents for our special children that we love oh so dearly.
By Arnon Grunberg
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Open Letter Books