De grauwe minnaar
Carl Friedman hates always being expected to say something about the Jewish experience in interviews. ‘It’s scarcely a motivating force for me.’ She prefers, a propos of her latest collection of stories, to observe that she always writes about strong women. ‘I can’t imagine writing about a woman who doesn’t stand on her own two feet. Women are generally stronger than men. You don’t find many men with backbone.’ It is true that Jewishness is not so much the underlying theme of Friedman’s work as an axiomatic motif, and as for the women, they certainly do stand out in the three stories in De grauwe minnaar.
Take the Polish Hanna Katz from the title story who, having lived for almost a century, decides she has had enough of this world: she puts on her shroud, lies down on her bed and expires. ‘Her husband Gersjom had passed a hundred by so many years that he had forgotten the precise number and it no longer mattered.’ In this story Friedman first adopts a calm fairytale tone but this is deceptive. Subsequently, a strange and tragic story unfolds, when the aged Gersjom is squeezed dry by a miser and the only consolation he can find is with a donkey. ‘Weren’t both of them, Jew and donkey, outcasts in the world?’ The old man has dubbed the animal Menachem, ‘he who consoles’. At the end of the story the man brays and the donkey responds and leaps on to his back, which spells the end for old Katz.
The piece de resistance in this collection is the final story ‘Thinking of Bette’, an autobiographically-based account of a daughter and her dying mother. The mother, an avid reader, is also strong: stubborn and wilful, which does not make the daughter’s task any easier. How can she help her mother, once she has made the four-hour journey from Amsterdam to the Flemish village where Bette lives? ‘There is no manual. No one has told me how Im supposed to manage. And I haven’t got enough time left to learn.’ In conversations, memories and actions Friedman constructs an emotional monument for the mother, while at the same time conveying with piercing lucidity the impossibility of the apparently simple concept of ‘attending the dying’.