The economics of love
Economist Roland Oberstein is one of the forty most renowned authorities on Adam Smith in the world. He is also the co-author of a collection of essays entitled Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Genocide – of interest to him because of his Jewish background. The same is true for economics: his mother, survivor of several camps, was a rather cold and miserly woman. Roland hopes to establish his reputation as an economist once and for all with a standard work on bubbles. To him, economics is a game based on cheating. People want to be cheated as much as they themselves cheat others. Roland is utterly convinced this principle applies to all human interaction – including love, which, he thinks, is no more than a transaction for the benefit of both parties involved. He seems to want to banish any form of irrationality.
Grunberg presents a whole series of characters who cheat on each other. When Roland is working at an American university, he cheats on his Dutch girlfriend, Violet, with Lea, an authority on camp commander Rudolf Höss. Meanwhile Violet cheats on Roland, and Lea is being cheated on by her husband. The latter, a politician, blackmails an illegal immigrant, promising a Green Card in exchange for sex. Roland is a cerebral person – distant, cold and calculating – unfathomable, perhaps. His conversations with Lea reveal that he identifies with Henri in If This Is A Man, portrayed by Primo Levi as a merciless survival machine.
In Grunberg’s sadistic universe, victim and executioner are one and the same, or at least it’s hard to distinguish between the two. But perhaps Roland also resembles Höss, who allegedly had his girlfriend murdered in the camp, as becomes clear when he returns to the Netherlands to teach for a semester and be closer to his son from a previous relationship. There, he becomes entangled in university politics when he refuses to give the son of a prominent donor a pass grade. His undoing, however, is his relationship with a student, which takes an almost fatal turn. From an economic point of view, Roland ends up in a bubble. He loses all control, because irrationality in the form of jealousy gains the upper hand. Metaphorically, Roland is both Höss and Henri, executioner and victim in one.
With Huid en haar (Every Scrap) Grunberg has written another impressive novel about the impossibility of adopting a closed moral system. People are constantly thwarted in their attempts to do so by dark impulses. And what is true for love is also true for economics. Whatever you do, you’re always a victim of self-deception.