The Asylum Seeker
A disturbing picture of modern man
Arnun Grunberg’s mad literary universe has become increasingly grim over the last few years. Whereas in the early novels tragedy chafed under humour, this now seems to be reversed. After Gstaad 95-98 (published under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt), in which, to your horror, you have to admit that you feel sympathy for a totally loony, anally fixated child murderer, The Asylum Seeker again exerts the same kind of ‘guilty’ effect on the reader for his disgust and compassion.
Grunberg’s new novel is the story of the writer Christian Beck who in his work broached something that ‘should have remained untouched, an anger, you could even call it blind hate, probably unfounded and explosive in nature.’ This anger and hate frightened Beck so much that he decided to put down his pen and become a translator of operating instructions.
Beck lost faith not only in the power of writing but also in his own luck. He is a man without illusion and without feeling. He begins to feel that it is up to him to unmask self-deception; only the innocence of the woman he lives with whom he calls ‘Bird’ can touch him. They are well suited because Bird is inclined to bear the grief of the world on her frail shoulders. However much Beck wants to attach importance to innocence, Bird’s compassion can amaze him. This amazement becomes total when Bird finds out that she has a fatal disease and tells Beck that she wants to get officially married – not to him but to an asylum seeker.
There is a concrete reason for the fact that Beck is willing to put up with the humiliating charity of his wife and share the last part of her life with a complete stranger. One day Beck, who visited brothels daily, had stuck a screwdriver – accidentally – into a whore’s eye. When Beck told Bird, she flew into a rage, but didn’t leave him, hence earning his everlasting respect. Therefore he indulges all her wishes, her wish to marry an asylum seeker, and her wish to ‘learn to make goat’s cheese herself’ – until she dies.
With The Asylum Seeker Arnon Grunberg has again written a deadly book that plays satanically with prevailing social ideas. Yet the intentionally provocative title of his novel should not be taken literally since the asylum seeker character has too small a role. Also, Grunberg is no campaigner, he is a true writer, with a driving, repetitive style. Grunberg has given a disturbing picture of modern man who passionately wants to come home somewhere but seems to thrive nowhere.