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Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, Trans. by Sam Garrett [Why This Book Should Win]

Casey O’Neil is a bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books. These days, he most often reads standing up, with a small sleeping daughter strapped to his torso.

How to describe a book as affecting and unusual as Tirza I could cobble together a few puffed-up jacket blurb superlatives—something like, “Hilarious Disturbing Subtle Horrific Masterpiece,” or maybe “Psycho-Cultural Familial Catastrophic Tour-De-Force.” But no, the best way to proceed in this instance is to accept that, confined to this meager space, I won’t be able to do justice to this irreducible book.

So I should start by admitting that I was totally unprepared for Tirza. To be honest, I would be scared to meet the person who is prepared for it. Two paragraphs in, I understood the caliber of writer I was dealing with. By the second page I had already laughed out loud. And from then on I was hopelessly immersed in the pathetic, compelling world of Jörgen Hofmeester. In his more restrained and classy jacket blurb, J.M. Coetzee says, “The wit and sardonic intelligence that shine through Arnon Grunberg’s prose make it a continual pleasure to read.” He’s absolutely right. Grunberg has that rare and most welcome of gifts: every sentence he writes—and I mean every sentence—is interesting. Whether he’s describing the apron chosen for sashimi chopping or the lamp chosen for human skull smashing, Arnon Grunberg is an absolute delight to read.

And if that were all, if Tirza were nothing more than a razor-sharp, comical evisceration of a hapless suburban father bumbling through his life with only his misguided devotion to his youngest daughter to provide some semblance of sanity, well, that would be more than enough to justify the price of admission. But in the midst of all this wit and sardonic intelligence, there emerges a slow, steady, disquieting rumble. Where at first the audience might have been comfortable—and even delighted—to sit back and watch Jörgen Hofmeester squirm and play the fool and fall on his face, eventually a slow boil and a sudden shift change everything. The prose is as light as ever. There is still plenty of laughter. We will gladly follow Arnon Grunberg wherever he leads us, but only once it’s too late do we realize that he has brought us to the edge of the abyss. And then, of course, he expertly hurls us into it.

Sam Garrett renders Tirza in flawless English, and there is something profound and unexpected in this translation. The novel’s attention to the fine line between privileged self-pity and vile brutality feels, at least to this reader, distinctly American. On one level this is ridiculous. This is a Dutch novel, rooted in Amsterdam, and the United States has little or nothing to do with it. Perhaps even the thought is just a symptom of my American selfishness. But I can’t help but feel there is a shared abyss here. And this connection points toward the sublime possibilities for fiction in translation: that a book taking place in a country almost 5,000 miles away, written in a language I don’t understand, can feel like it’s speaking directly to me.

Tirza deserves to be unleashed on as many readers as possible. It deserves to win the Best Translated Book Award for 2014.

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