Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)
Although I read Tirza (Arnon Grunberg) a few months ago, it still sits on my nightstand. It’s such a beautiful physical object, as all Open Letter Books are, that I am hesitant to move it. I appreciate that their graphic design has a timeless quality because there are some books on my shelf that definitely show their vintage. In some ways, this novel is a psychological thriller, but the artwork is not the titillating or grim imagery of a thriller. Instead it is an elegant plane, representing the plane trip that separates the two distinct portions of the novel.
The first portion concerns a party, a going-away party for the titular Tirza, daughter of Jörgen Hofmeester. Jorgen lives for his daughter; she is the center of his life, his “sun queen”. And she is leaving him, going away to travel across Africa with a boyfriend that Jorgen has never even met. Jorgen wants this party to be perfect for her. This is his last chance to attempt to be the perfect father. He deals with every setback as it comes: his estranged wife returning and behaving maudlinly, Tirza’s professor catching him half-dressed, a classmate who refuses to participate in the dancing. Meanwhile, we are in his head, watching his ego crumble under each further challenge and humiliation.
This was hard for me to get through, this being in Jorgen’s head. I become emotionally worn down by books with unpleasant characters. The only Open Letter book that I didn’t enjoy, Rupert: A Confession, had this problem. But this book was different. Jorgen always managed to pull me back in when I was slipping out of the narrative. He just tries so hard, tries, as he reiterates throughout the novel, to be a better person. This is not just 400 pages spent in an unpleasant location. It’s not watching Sisyphus give it one more go. Instead, the narration is dynamic. It constantly shifted my perspective of Jorgen and of Tirza. New elements of their relationship were constantly being revealed. I wanted to hang in there, to give Jorgen one more chance.
The latter half of the novel occurs after Tirza has left her home for her trip. This portion is more fast-paced, although I notice that some reviewers here on Goodreads disagree. Less time is spent in Jorgen’s head; instead he finally begins to reach outside of himself, to make contact with others. Much of this portion is him verbally trying to explain what happened in the first half. We finally see how he rationalizes his behavior and his thoughts. Although the portions seem radically different, they fit together snugly to give us a more complete analysis of Jorgen.
If you’re curious about if you’d enjoy this work, you can always dive right in. There’s an excerpt found on the publisher’s site.