Brilliant absurdist chronicle of a hapless outsider’s struggle to do the right thing
Arnon Grunberg’s 14th novel charts the downfall of Geniek Janowski, a Polish-German firefighter doing his best to be a good father, husband, lover and colleague, only to fail on all fronts.
Geniek - his name is Polish shorthand for ‘a clumsy person’ - leads a seemingly unremarkable life with his wife Wen and his son Jurek in the sleepy Dutch province of Limburg, where everyone simply calls him ‘The Pole’ because they can’t pronounce his name. He is the only foreigner and the only vegetarian at the fire station, yet to him the crew feels like a band of brothers.
When he discovers that the wife of his colleague Beckers is dying, The Pole is reminded of the role she played in his life following the death of his eldest son, Borys, a lonely lad who still soiled his pants at the age of twelve. The Pole bought an old pony as company for the boy and for a while it seemed to help. When Borys threw himself in front of a train, it was The Pole himself who cleared away his remains.
In his hour of need, the fire crew offered The Pole a helping hand by painting his house, while Beckers’ wife provided consolation in the form of unorthodox sexual acts. Racked by guilt, The Pole confessed the affair to his wife, and retreated to a monastery for a year, where he ended up living in the henhouse. On his return, he is allowed to rejoin the fire brigade, though his colleagues have their doubts (‘he’s like one of them Muslim fundamentalists’). His wife has had enough and walks out on him (‘everything around you dies’). He books a trip to Ukraine with an agency called Love Over Borders and returns home to Limburg with the beautiful Yulia in tow. Happiness seems tantalisingly close but at a Christmas party at the fire station, when Yulia is assaulted by the crew and the attack is passed off as a joke, it becomes clear that The Pole was never one of them. In the end, Geniek heads off into the woods, leaving everyone and everything behind.
Grunberg has lost none of his edge in this acutely absurdist account of the powerlessness of human beings to alter their fate. Comfort, salvation, love and solidarity seem out of reach, at least in any conventional sense. In the world of Good Men, illusions about humanity and above all brotherhood will never prevail. Grunberg chronicles Geniek’s crushing humiliation in a peerless style that defies any reader not to be moved by The Pole’s fate.