A groundbreaking novel on what we consider to be reality, truth and love
As a writer, Grunberg set himself the task of filling up the gaps in human memory with fiction. That’s how he gave meaning to life and enabled his readers to live vicariously through his work. Twenty years after his debut, Grunberg set out to write a major novel about his mother Hannelore, who survived Auschwitz as a child. He moved back into his childhood home but on the evening of February 9th, 2015 she died, at the age of 87. ‘Now I have to become my own mother,’ he wrote.
In the novel Birthmarks (2015), a grown-up son stands in front of the door of his parental home in Amsterdam. His name is Otto Kadoke, and he works as a psychiatrist at a crisis center. Kadoke violates all the protocols to keep his suicidal patients alive. Meanwhile, he is doing everything in his power to keep his elderly Jewish mother safe. Then he learns that his mother is really his father. ‘Your mother has a penis,’ says the nurse who puts her in the shower. Kadoke is messed up and detached, but he does succeed at one thing: his mother is still alive and well on the final page.
In Occupied Territories, Kadoke and his reluctant mother – who, once again, is his father – go to Israel to find freedom. He suffers a public fall from grace in Amsterdam after one of his female patients comes out about having been abused by him. Kadoke flees and falls in love with his second cousin Anat.
He and his father travel to a settlement where – he is shocked to discover – he is welcomed as the Messiah, the one who can father Anat’s children. But that does require that he proves, in front of his mother-in-law, that he’s not just ‘another impotent Jew’ – resulting in a scene that’s as hilarious as it is harrowing.
Grunberg is a boundary-breaking writer. What’s amazing is that the helter-skelter of painful and bizarre scenes in Occupied Territories isn’t just shocking and alienating. It’s also moving and speaks to the meaning of our existence. At the same time, Grunberg’s ‘revaluation of all values’ sheds sharp light on what we consider to be reality, truth and love. This is literature at its finest.