February 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett

The Jewish Messiah is not a good book to read during dinner. You will eventually get used to picturing Xavier Radek’s blue, mutilated testicle -- in fact, by the end of the 470-page saga over fifty-five percent of Israelis believe that the testicle, dubbed “King David,” is the new form of the Messiah -- but the early scene of Xavier’s near-death from a botched circumcision requires a strong and empty stomach. Throughout the book, festering blisters, infections and strange acts of violence feature prominently.

The Jewish Messiah begins as a darkly hilarious, genuinely shocking satire featuring a naïve but unsympathetic narrator and an unsympathetic and thoughtless supporting cast. It’s a kind of Candide for the post- post-Holocaust generation. Xavier, a Swiss architect’s son and the grandson of an S.S. man, decides early that “suffering is the emergency exit of beauty” and that he wants to ease the suffering of the Jews. His childhood is populated by ignorant and unpleasant characters -- the father who finally finds meaning by discovering the pleasures of Asian massage parlors; the twisted mother who once tried to poison his milk and becomes addicted to her new “lover,” the kitchen knife she cuts herself with at night; the stepfather who falls in love with him but is too inert to do much but announce it at dinner; the old, drunk, nearly blind mohel-turned-kosher cheese salesman who cuts off his ball; the false rabbi who pockets the seed money for the Jewish Community Center and frequents whores; and Awromele, the “rabbi’s” son, who becomes his lover over the course of a few sexual episodes that are no more appetizing than the post-circumcision scenes of Xavier nearly bleeding to death in the bed he has soiled while the mohel’s gift of gorgonzola rots in its wax paper. “Victims are always culprits too,” says his mother, “and culprits are always victims. No one gets what he doesn’t deserve.”

Early on, The Jewish Messiah riotously parodies Fascist ideology, and mercilessly exposes the shamelessly misguided thoughts of everyone involved. Arnon Grunberg, who was born in 1971 and has published about a book a year since his celebrated debut in 1994, writes with dazzling wit and style. Over the course of the full novel, though, as we follow Xavier and Awromele to Amsterdam (where Xavier, having painted a series of works featuring his mother holding his jarred testicle, fails to be understood at art school, much like Hitler) and then to Israel, where Xavier becomes Prime Minister and starts a new world war, the steady diet of violence becomes tedious, and the line between satire and sensationalism blurs.

Not only Xavier, who has more in common with Hitler than a missing testicle, spouts rhetoric from Fascism 101. The thugs who beat up the teenage Awromele after witnessing Xavier give him a blow-job in the park intersperse their Kierkegaard quotes with a lecture about how they “communicate” with their feet, through blows, and that because they are communicating this way, they are Awromele’s friends and he need never feel lonely. Xavier identifies the cunt as the source of all evil and the anus as the source of happiness, and Xavier’s mother describes the hatred of the Jews as the only real love. Xavier rises to power espousing how all communication is pain, and holding tight to a sort of neo-Sorelian idea of pain as cleansing. Xavier and Awromele toil for years over a translation of Mein Kampf into Yiddish. Jews, fake Jews and anti-Semites converge and commingle in gross acts of sex and violence. God, philosophy and history are ceaselessly distorted.   

Arnon Grunberg is a great literary talent, no doubt about that. He’s a virtuoso, a high-school dropout who won a major award for first-time novelists at age 23, and then, using a pseudonym, won the same award again. In this book, he’s showing off, tormenting and revolting the reader, but with such loathsome precision and clarity that you have to stick with him, all the way to the odiferous end. The Jewish Messiah is an interesting document of the current generation, a big, nasty story that makes Berlin Alexanderplatz look kind-hearted and the works of Gunter Grass look redemptive. It is a true grotesque. It is less a novel than a challenge, a provocation, and it belongs on course syllabi for studies of the contemporary European novel, where students can discuss the lasting taboos it transgresses and the legacy it reflects. As its vividly disgusting themes and images turn from profoundly funny to more purely sickening, The Jewish Messiah forces the reader to wonder how such a novel can exist at all, how someone could write it, what it all means.

The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett
The Penguin Press
ISBN: 1594201498
480 Pages