Tuesday, November 9, 2004

The diaries of Arnon Grunberg (4)

In the night of 9 to 10 November 1938 throughout Germany Jewish synagogues and shops were rampaged and burnt down by German mobs. My grandparents did not live in Germany themselves but they had several relatives, one of whom was killed, after being brutally beaten and tramped by members of the SA, the military arm of Hitler’s party. Of course, I was too young to have experienced Kristallnacht as this night of barbarism was named, but every Jewish child was immersed with the fear that was handed down from generation to generation. I therefore have very vivid memories of Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass.

I have memories of a Jewish school being set aflame by seventeen and eighteen year old boys who tore the old Talmud teacher by his beard out of the building, before breaking the man’s back by repetitive and relentless kicking, while the elder comrades of the boys and SA Gruppenfuehrer stood aside laughing and inciting by his laughing the brown vested vandals and murderers to be. A fifth boy painted a white Star of David on the walls, before they disappeared in the night, leaving a dead man and disgrace.

This fear was vivid but it was a child’s fear nevertheless. This fear was no larger than the fear of Santa Claus that I inherited from my playmates in the street. In Amsterdam Santa Claus has Moorish assistants called Zwarte Piet who would put you in their jute bags to take you away to Spain if you have behaved badly during the year, and this legend aroused such fear of consciousness in me, that Zwarte Piet seemed to me endlessly more evil than the Nazi’s even though Zwarte Piet was a racist legend of a white-Christian society.

I later realized that as a Jewish boy I had much more in common with Zwarte Piet than I could imagine as a child. Today, I realize that the Moorish assistants of Santa Claus in Europe are one of the most evil and fascist inventions of European history. Zwarte Piet is the only icon of Nazi ideology that is tolerable in modern schools in Amsterdam, and little children are taught from very early on, to fear the evil that the black Moor represents. It is thanks to the good white Saint Nicolas who submitted the evil black Moor that children are rewarded for their faithfulness to the Church of Christ.

“Schools are burning in Uden, pig heads and Molotov cocktails are thrown at mosques all around the Netherlands. They are collective targets of an ethnic hatred that has been unconsciously premeditated by loosely related websites preaching violence covered by the freedom in which name they speak, individual politicians stirring up the fear on which they thrive, and popular media demonizing Muslims for years. Racist opportunism and extreme right extremists waited for the right wave of the moment that was bound to come. Now they all got their ride, and like a wave their frustrated hatred hit the dikes of tolerance and left governments that for years protected Dutch Muslims from the coup of civic small-mindedness that is so typical of the Netherlands.
The tidal wave of hatred splattered years of bred hatred and disgust, and is set loose by an invisible hand under which cover all act anonymously and remain innocent in its absent working. All who warmed themselves in this heat now are suddenly enlightened by the dark coldness that is exposed and from which they could not be liberated until it broke loose. They are the lost sheep returning to the flock bitten by the fearsome enemy of evil within oneself.”

Thursday, November 4, 2004

The diaries of Arnon Grunberg (3)

As a writer you think of the day after your death more often than the average person. This is a professional deviation that all writers share, and it could probably even be claimed that if you often think of the day after your death, that you must have a talent to write. So I write. We man, we all, but writers especially, want to leave an eternal memory of ourselves to the world. Don’t we all see in our fantasy that sobbing circle of friends and family, as our beloved ones whisper their last words ‘we will never forget you.’ Finally, our consciousness slides into a happy oblivian.

Writers are different from philosophers who think more of death in abstract terms. But a writer thinks only of his own death. Writers turn up their noses for philosophers for this reason alone, because they will never satisfy the deeper objectives of their desires. A philosopher denies the very motives in him self that he acknowledges to be the driving force behind the desires of others. No, we writers envy another class of professionals, a writer really envies movie directors.

A movie is the only medium of expression that supersedes the power of writing, the medium of thought. Cinema transcendents writing because it directly appeals to the viewer not only in words, but in sound and vision. A movie is a total work of perception, in which the artist can express himself completely and convey the moment absolutely onto the viewer. Compared to cinema, literature is the incomplete world of thinkers, and its the incompleteness that attracts many people who feel comforted by the reenactment of this imperfection of thought. But cinema is a life’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

One of my favorite movies has long been ‘A Day at the Beach’ by Theo Van Gogh, after the novel by Dutch author Heere Heeresma, Roman Polanski had earlier rewritten it already into a scenario in 1970. The 1984 movie is about an alcoholic, divorced father who takes his handicapped daughter for a day at the beach. But the father gets drunk in a bar close by and ultimately looses sight of his daughter at the beach. The father blows this rare moment of fulfilment on alcohol and looses the most precious part of his life by his addiction to failure. This fate of decay is the nucleus of the movie’s success.

The day after a writer’s death is the most important day of his life. It is the moment of the unraveling of a life’s plot, where the threads of his actions end and begin, this moment is his alpha and omega. The day after a writer’s death the meaning of his life is revealed to his readers. The exact scenario of this day is therefore subject of a writer’s reoccurring dreams. A writer’s doubt is ruled by questions like: do all the elements fall in place, are the right protagonists present, is the moment in the day right, are none of the details missing, does the light fall right on my face when I sigh my last breath and my eyelids close slowly to cover the light in my eyes.

A good death makes all the difference in the memory a writer leaves to his readers. It can be the difference between the branding mark of tragedy and sinking away into a void of romance novellists. The memory of the people is not a remorseful soul but a grinding mechanism, everything has to be right in order to escape it. Einstein knew that without the manipulating forge of the hand of his own genius he would not stand the test of time as the inventor of the theory of relativism that shook the perception of man. Nor did Freud leave it to the invisible hands of historiographers to ensure the remembrance of his discovery of unconcsciousness.

“Theo wrote weekly columns for Metro, a free daily newspaper in the Netherlands. His columns were offensive to most who were attacked by his sharp and cynical pen, but this was his mark, and those not a target loved reading them. He had made a name off of scandal and law suits, and people had grown to adore the attack of untouchable persons in the establishment. His latest series were written to provoke the Islamic immigrants. But immigrants didn’t understand the sharp attacks on their faith and their proud was deeply offended.
‘To offend is the test of freedom,’ said Theo. ‘Your freedom ends where mine begins and freedom stands on the ground of mutual respect,’ said Muhamed. So Theo offended Muhamed and Muhamed’s freedom was tested.
Theo was slaughtered like a pig in front of cafe The Dutchman. Muhamed caught up with Theo, both driving their bikes in front of East Park. Muhamed shot several times, Theo said, don’t do it, don’t do it. Muhamed did.”

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Diaries of Arnon Grunberg (2)

Arnon’s favorite place in New York City was a little book shop down at the corner of Court Street and De Graw. The shop was literally stacked with books and unlike most bookshops whose display of books consisted of neatly ordered rows of books, fit on the shelves so precisely that only someone with a total lack of understanding for the nature of books would order them this way, books here where crammed into boxes and shelves that were barely built to hold that many. A love for books and an appreciation for their true value only shows in such manner where the owner clutches on to their possession. The sheer number of books made one feel being at a graveyard of thoughts and ideas, piling one upon the other, indifferent of their importance in active life.

“Homosexuality with the Greeks,” “Miffy Counting Book,” “On Writing Well,” “1990 Edition Writer’s Resources,” “The Bulgarian Czars,” a purple and red colored basketball. The door would marginally be able to open in the morning, boxes had to be moved before closing the door at night. No two people could fit in the same aisle, and if two persons would meet here, one was forced to walk back his trail to allow himself in the first place to continue his way. Children you wouldn’t find here, books were piled too high for children to go through them. The air was so sour and musty that children are instinctively avoiding from entering.

Billions of thoughts that influenced once their times, lay here unemployed and retired, forgotten and desolate until a young unwritten mind with a tick for an oddity would stumble on them in a lost moment of gold digging, and would uncover what was entrusted during months of festidious labor but was forgotten so easily. Thousands of books whose age of years could hardly be measured anymore, unforgettable classics who kept people’s hopes and dreams alive, who inspurred the creations of a lifetime, lay here within the reach for anyone with a dollar to spare. Knowledge is power wrote Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, and here lay some of the cheapest power one could buy in town. Four dollars for “Origin of Species,” two dollars for a course in “Literary Chinese,” two dollars for “Oblomow,” three for “The Works of John Milton.”

The part of Brooklyn between 9th and Atlantic Street was a lively mix of original low end neighborhood stores, like Chinese laundromats, corner grocery stores and fried chicken fast food, and trendy artistic interior shops and restaurants. The neighborhood was changing, students and artists, a working middle class yearning for taste and entertainment, was slowly pushing old low class out. And although you wished to feel sympathy for the original inhabitants, you couldn’t help thinking the neighborhood was improving, as they were leaving, when seeing the deprived state of their old homes.

This is what life is all about: you owe nothing in life, you hope for better, then life’s fortune turns on you, life improves, yes it does, and you know just enough to realize, you cannot afford it.

“Please mister, can you spare some change for a homeless man? I turn my eyes the other way, while I search for my wallet. If I don’t have less than a dollar I won’t spend it on him, and to prevent disappointing him, I avoid his eye contact and thus his expectation. As I have a dollar, I stop and turn to give it to him. Is it complete randomness by which a drifter is blessed with an action of mercy or is it the frankness of tone with which he asks for change? Beggars are both more common as more polite in the States, I wonder why. I walk on to a small Italian restaurant, have a medium sized pizza with extra toppings and two Peroni beers. The price of commodities is the oddest thing in the world, two dollars for a man’s lifework, 20 dollars for a day’s meal, one dollar for a man’s mercy.”

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Diaries of Arnon Grunberg (1)

Arnon Grunberg was a writer, living in New York City, unlike so many other writers. Grunberg was no New Yorker originally, he had grown up in Amsterdam. But he had found that the cultures in both cities were remarkably similar. When he had just moved to New York he had expected to experience a light form of culture shock, or at least that his humor would not be understood, that he dressed unnoticeably out of tune, or at least that his slim, tall posture would have an exotic appeal on the American girls. But not only did the women of New York prefer the slightly over-weight consultant on steroids look, ignoring him completely, every one in New York ignored his newly arrived, out of tune immigrant’s presence. The truth was that you cannot be out of tune in New York City, he quickly discovered. And thus, he didn’t even bother about the culture shock and assimilation difficulties that so many immigrants in Europe suffer from.

At first Arnon – or Yasha for his friends – was excited about this. He became one of the secretively and many freak obsessees. He would jump on the J train and cross the Williams Bridge to walk around Lee Street, or inhaled the stench of fish in China Town until his clothes would soak of its odour, walking in and out of the Chinese stores, observing the babbling cashiers on their rotten crutches. Or he would take the Q train down to Brighton Beach and walk along the counter of import caviar and Russian specialties. But soon before he knew, he found himself nothing short of being a tourist in his own home town. It was then that he started to regret the lack of homesickness, the lack of nostalgia that other normal immigrants experienced. He found out there was a Dutch Club down town, but he felt even worse thinking about contacting it, although it would have been the perfectly normal American immigrants’ experience to join.

Arnon was not like most immigrants or even most New Yorkers for that matter. Not that he was any kind of special person, but he wasn’t ordinary either. Arnon was a succesful professional writer in his old country, completely desolate in his new town. Arnon was Dutch, a Dutch Jew, that is his parents were Jewish whatever that meant beyond looking Jewish, he didn’t know. There were some Jews whom you would have to strip their pants down to their ankles before they looked Jewish, or whose Jewish identity consisted mainly of the fact that they wouldn’t stop talking until your ears fell to the ground. For others, being a Jew meant a life of strict religious order and rituals. To Arnon, being Jewish meant more than anything else, that he had a classic Jewish nose of which he was proud to be his, because it had always bin the center piece of his personality.

The size of his nose had never been an obstruction to Arnon, who had been a frisk child. If it bore any parallel to him at all, he would brag to girls, it was to the magnitude of his, and here he would take a short breath, character, after which he would exhale with a large smile, that was mostly enough to win over any girl’s heart. Yasha, or Arnon, was mainly a man of convictions. Convictions he had many, although little meaning did they have. “But my nose, that is me!” Arnon said to anyone who was trying to poke fun of him at parties with such blunt dignity that it meant usually was either the direct end to any poking or the beginning of his underdog’s great appeal to women. That he loved being the underdog with women was no lie either.

A writer, a thinker, a fantast. Arnon thought of himself as the new Gogol. He loved writing, he was in short a writer, and if he was not his nose, he was that. Three years ago he moved to New York City, it was two years after his break through as an author in the Netherlands. Writing was the break he needed to escape the village, the village of Amsterdam. He was able to save money, had received an award of 25,000 dollar, a contract for a new book to be finished next year and a weekly column to write for the largest newspaper in Holland. Everything was paid for, and there were no moral debts that bound him, so he was off. Icarus to the light, to write in the greatest city in the world. Whatever you wanna be in life, there is no place like New York. This is the navel of the world, the modern Delphi, the Tree of Life and he was the new Buddha, in touch with the earth at his fingertips.

“I have grown to enjoy writing of any kind lately. There is an esthetic challenge in writing even the most bluntly formulated coverletter for a short story. I would write advertisements, write punch lines for insurances, obituaries, I want to write, I want to write for boulevard magazines, the cultural agenda for local newspapers, letters to my publisher, I am addicted to chatlines, I reply to spam mailing, writing extensive apologies to Nigerian widows, I keep a diary for no one to ever read. When I am reading a book, I will supplement those empty passages that the author left out, I will extend in the centimeter wide margins, those thoughts the antagonist did not entrust to the trust of his readership, I send dozens of postcards on vacation. I am a writer. I have to be a writer.”