YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The inciter

The Jewish Messiah A Novel ; Arnon Grunberg Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett ; Penguin Press: 472 pp., $27.95

January 20, 2008|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist and host of the radio program Open Books in Chicago ( Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air."

Expelled from high school in Amsterdam, Arnon Grunberg rapidly became a literary wunderkind and enfant terrible. The author of audacious tragicomedies, he won a prestigious award, the Netherlands' Anton Wachter Prize for debut fiction, twice, although initially no one realized it. In 1994, at age 23, Grunberg received the award for "Blue Mondays." Then, in 2000, a Viennese writer, Marek van der Jagt, who had been attacking Grunberg and other Dutch writers in the press for being frivolous, won the prize for his first novel, "The Story of My Baldness." Except that Van der Jagt was actually Grunberg.

Twice a recipient (as himself) of the AKO Literature Prize, which is the Dutch equivalent of the British Man Booker Prize, this transgressive, bestselling, prolific, gimlet-eyed scamp once again raises the controversy quotient. In his eighth harrowing novel, "The Jewish Messiah," Grunberg, the son of Jews from Germany, detonates the promise of a Jewish messiah and satirizes the persistence and insidiousness of anti-Semitism and the dire consequences of malignant messianic missions.

The story of Xavier Radek, a handsome and eerily cooperative young man, is anchored in orderly and prosperous Basel, Switzerland, which, behind its scrubbed facade of neutrality, harbors reprehensible crimes, among them the laundering of the Nazis' ill-gotten riches. While "borrowing money from his mother without asking," Xavier, 16, discovers his own family's Nazi secret: His maternal grandfather, whom he resembles, was an enthusiastic and hard-working SS officer. A curious revelation, given that Xavier has been visiting a synagogue and pondering the nature of suffering and those he dubs the "enemies of happiness." Accepted as a Jew, albeit a super-assimilated one, he is invited to dinner at the rabbi's house. But the rabbi also turns out to be a fake, and his son Awromele, the eldest of 13 children, cheerfully reveals his fondness for smutty jokes.

Xavier is undaunted. He has found his people and his calling: "He had to comfort the Jews." He falls madly in love with blithe Awromele, who arranges an "illegal circumcision" so that Xavier can fully claim his "Jewishness." The mohel, or circumciser, turns out to be nearly blind and, in gory slapstick scenes, botches the operation. After dragging his mauled self home, Xavier nearly dies, thanks to his wacko mother's refusal to help him. When she and her dimwitted boyfriend, who lusts after Xavier, finally bring the mutilated teenager to the hospital, it's too late to save his left testicle. But no matter, Xavier keeps it in a jar and names it King David. He also becomes famous as the good people of Basel rise up and punish the poor schlub of a mohel in an anti-Semitic frenzy. Xavier takes up painting -- creating portraits of his neurotic, coldhearted mother holding his testicle -- and fantasizes about how he and Awromele can run away together and proceed with their project to translate "Mein Kampf" into Yiddish.

Religious Jews will not speak God's name. In the Radek household, it's Hitler who is referred to as You-Know-Who, the icon of evil with whom Grunberg wickedly aligns his passive-aggressive young hero, from his magnetic dark eyes to the missing testicle, minor artistic talent yoked to rampant megalomania, and a foul obsession with Jews. Xavier wants to be their healer even as he thinks that "the Jews might have nothing, but at the same time they had everything. They had a country of their own; they had nuclear weapons, too; they had Einstein and Billy Wilder." When he and Awromele are caught in the woods in flagrante delicto (their first time) by Kierkegaard-spouting thugs, Xavier again fails in his self-appointed role as savior and runs away, leaving his Jewish lover to learn the percussive "language of feet" applied with expressive vigor to his head, ribs and stomach.

Xavier finally returns to the scene of the crime the next day and, in a burlesque of ineptness and penance, loads his mangled beloved into a wheelbarrow. He does, after all, want to forgive the chosen people one by one for "all the wrongs they had committed throughout the centuries. For the guilt they had imposed on others. For the almost unforgivable guilt they had imposed upon themselves, by being born." With forgiveness like that, it's just a few steps back to the Holocaust.

After a messy sojourn in Amsterdam, during which Awromele is wildly unfaithful, the couple immigrate to Israel. There the Jew who can't say no continues his sexual adventures, while Xavier takes up photography, then turns himself into a politician. With King David-in-a-jar at his side and dirty tricks up his sleeves, Xavier becomes prime minister of the Promised Land.

Los Angeles Times Articles