Hannelore Grünberg-Klein, mother of Arnon Grunberg, died on 10th February 2015. She was eighty-seven and a survivor of Auschwitz. Anyone who has followed Grunberg’s career will be conscious of what a blow that must have been. Their relationship was symbiotic. When she died Grunberg wrote, ‘Now I’ll have to live on as my mother.’

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Arnon Grunberg

Even before his mother became terminally ill, Grunberg announced his intention to move back home for a while. He was to be ‘embedded’ in his mother’s house and write about the experience. A year after her death his major new novel appeared: Birthmarks, a book that in no sense delivers what you would expect.

Birthmarks is about a psychiatrist, Otto Kadoke. He was named after Otto Frank but dislikes the Jewishness of his forename. His surname is pronounced like a mangled ‘okay’, although he is anything but okay. Or might it be kaput? Kadoke’s mission in life is to guard people against death. His elderly mother for a start, for whom he employs a Nepalese home help.

In his job, too, he guards against death since he works for the emergency suicide prevention service. Kadoke’s mission seems doomed to failure, mainly because he totally misjudges the people around him. He falls for the Nepalese home help, for example. When she opens the door of his mother’s house wrapped in a towel, he mistakenly takes it as an invitation to sex.

At the point when he overpowers her, his mother comes into the room and he quarrels with her during the act. ‘You’re worse than the Nazis,’ she says.

What Grunberg describes here is a prohibition on happiness that’s passed on from one generation to the next. He’s not the first to do it and it’s not the first time he’s done it, but he does it extremely incisively.

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The novel soon becomes absurd. On page 72 we abruptly discover that Otto’s mother has ‘a prick’. She is actually his father, who, after his mother’s death began wearing her clothes out of grief and then took over her role. The situation grows increasingly desperate. Kadoke is beaten up by the Nepalese home help’s boyfriend, becomes more psychologically disturbed than his patients and develops birthmarks, benign ‘anxiety spots’.

With his razor-sharp writing, Grunberg makes the reader laugh and cry at the same time. There is, in the end, a glimmer of hope for the tragic and blundering Kadoke, even as he gropes in the dark. Birthmarks is the ultimate attempt by Arnon Grunberg to keep both his mother and himself alive through literature.

'Birthmarks' is a stylistic tour de force, a breath of fresh air and already one of my favourite Grunbergs.

Arnon Grunberg
Arnon Grunberg (b. 1971) debuted at the age of 23 with the wry, humorous novel novel 'Blauwe maandagen' (Blue Mondays, 1994), which brought him instant success. Some of his other titles are 'Figuranten' (Silent Extras, 1997), 'De asielzoeker' (The Asylum Seeker, 2003), 'De joodse messias' (The Jewish Messiah, 2004), 'Moedervlekken' (Birthmarks, 2016) and 'Goede mannen' (Good Men, 2018).
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