By Arnon Grunberg
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
New York: The Penguin Press, 2008
ISBN 978-1-59420-149-3
470 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett March 2012

As the novel opens we meet Xavier Radek, a teenager living in Basel, Switzerland in the 1960s. He is a strange young man, influenced by the memory of his grandfather who was an SS guard in WWII, and especially adept at controlling and killing Jews. Xavier decides that he is to be the modern comforter of Jews.

Thus begins this fascinating, disturbing and tremendously creative novel of the path of Xavier toward fulfilling his life’s mission. From the beginning there is a clear tone of surrealism in the story. This Radek family, and especially Xavier, are quite strange folks indeed. His father can only show love by cruelty, and is addicted to Asian sex parlors which feature asexual workers, his mother’s true love is a knife with which she inflicts wounds on herself nightly, a new lover of his mother is addicted to his computer, but in love with Xavier.

Xavier’s driving passion, in addition to saving the Jews, is Awromele, a young handsome Jewish boy he meets, falls in love with, but only on the condition that they “feel nothing” in this love affair. Of course, Xavier’s driving motivations are the feelings he has, while at the same time denying having feelings.

The novel floats on, near the world in which we live, with people who resemble people we may have met or heard about. But the characters are only “near” our world, not really of it. Xavier undergoes a butchered circumcision so that he can become a Jew, and the botched operation causes the loss of one of his testicles which he carries around with him for the rest of his life in a jar. Others, including a huge portion of the population of Israel eventually come to believe the testicle itself is The Messiah.

There are many events and subplots which are similar to real situations, but at some point they just go off the deep end and one shakes one’s head and can only say . . . well, I guess that depends upon the reader. Some may well say – this is crazy, and close the novel. I was startled, but gripped, and I read on, deciding early on to give author, Arnon Grunberg, whatever space he needed to tell the story his way.

I believe I was well rewarded for my decision. I just could hardly put the book down and it is a rather dense nearly 500 page novel, but I read it within a week, finding every excuse I could imagine to get back to the strange tale. So many scenes and characters are just out of some crazy clouds of wild imagination:

There is the grandfather, long since dead, who was an SS ranking officer, but also a “good” Christian who never killed Jews on Sunday:

“. . . it was a Sunday. The day on which his grandfather always refrained from death, to honor the Lord.”

Xavier’s botched circumcision causes the old Jew who does the operation to be vilified as a child molester, sent to prison where he dies, and Xavier is all of a sudden a famous “victim” of a Jewish crazy man: Grunberg’s description:

“Xavier wasn’t a Jew yet, but he was already a victim. It was a start.”

Another of Grunberg’s incredible straight lines has to do with Awromele’s view of Xavier’s nut-case parents:

“He longed to have normal parents, like Xavier’s.”

Things are happening that are close to being real things, but they just go beyond, go wrong, become absurd. Nonetheless the narrator continues on as if nothing were amiss. Many of these scenes are sort of strange descriptions that parallel Nazi theory and practice, and throughout the novel Xavier and Awromele are translating Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Yiddish to be published in Israel.

It’s a difficult novel, often disturbing, even disgusting, yet I found it brilliant and mesmerizing at the same time. It is well worth a read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett