Reader's guide about Death in Taormina, the new book we read in de Volkskrant Leesclub

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Reader’s guide about Death in Taormina, the new book we read in de Volkskrant Leesclub

Statue Sophia Twigt

The sixteenth novel by Arnon Grunberg, Death in Taormina, was received by literary critics as a ‘classic Grunberg’ (in this newspaper, by reviewer Bo van Houwelingen ) and ‘Grunberg at its best’ in The Parool. But what does that actually mean? What criteria must a novel meet in order to be unmistakably written by Grunberg? What is ‘DNA Arnon’?

Where else but in his style is a writer’s DNA recorded? You can recognize Grunberg by his short, bare sentences and by the sentences that interlock because the emphasis is placed on one word and that word is repeated and repeated, tasted on the tongue and given an extra meaning. His style is often ambiguous, associative and has a wryly ironic effect. Grunberg is capable of making you laugh and cry at the same time.

Although his style is elusive, it turns out to be unique. In 2002, in NRC Handelsblad revealed that The history of my baldness, the Anton Wachter Prize-winning debut novel by Marek van der Jagt, was actually written by Arnon Grunberg. The unveiling was made based on a comparative digital style analysis by Dario Benedetto of the University of Rome. Grunberg was exposed on the basis of his choice of words and the use of his punctuation marks.

Escape Artist

You can recognize a real Grunberg not only by the flexible, repetitive style, but also by his mastery of form, the way in which he constructs his novels. Here too Grunberg shows himself to be a true escape artist. What do we actually have in our hands? You’ll wonder that after reading the first page of Death in Taormina – and I quote it in full, because this is not a review in which I have to stick to an exact number of words, but a reading guide.

The opening line reads, “Until I met Jonah I was not afraid to die.” Then a blank line follows and it says: ‘This prayer that is not a prayer, this confession that is not a confession – you confess guilt, everything else is diversion – this charge that in the end is not either, I lack the faith to indict , this love letter, a belated reply, better late than never, is actually an attempt to dig a grave. An attempt to excavate for better burial, this time according to the Funeral Services Act. I am digging a grave with words, besides a few letters and erotic poems in English I have never written, I have only consistently spoken in full sentences since I was eleven and I have continued to do so, but that is something different, now I write because I can’t talk, I answer questions that were asked of me long ago, and a large part of life is not made up of that occupation? Answer out questions, even questions that have only been muttered under your breath.’

No prayer, no confession, no charges. Or is it? A belated reply to a love letter? A grave with words, but of someone who cannot speak. enigmatic. And that is of course exactly the intention. Grunberg throws sand in your eyes – grave sand, perhaps – and makes it difficult for you to read what you are reading. Moreover, with this grave he opens a mystery. Who’s in it? And how did he or she get there? The plot will unfold along those lines.

Shape control is part of Grunberg’s DNA. He knows how to captivate you from the start. He plays with your expectations. The events and reasoning sometimes degenerate into absurdism, but he keeps you undiminished curious about what is to come. The Death of Taormina is ‘a page turner’ Thomas de Veen wrote in NRC Handelsblad. The novel is just as exciting and plot-driven as The asylum seeker (2003) and the multi-award winning Tirza (2006).


Just like in Tirza was the case, the perspective is in Death in Taormina very important. Is the narrator reliable? That certainly did not apply to Jörgen Hofmeester in Tirza. This time the narrator is 26-year-old Zelda. Although she is a young woman and the story is written in the first person singular – something Grunberg hadn’t done in a while – she is a quintessential Grunberg character: smart, astute and eloquent, but also violated and detached. Inimitable sometimes. Love and pain are close together with her. ‘Half your life you spend formulating your sentences in such a way that you don’t hurt other people too much with it. But every now and then you have to hurt them a little, otherwise they’ll forget you exist.’

Zelda was abandoned by her mother at a young age. It left overnight to ‘find itself’. Zelda was left alone with her father. When her mother was found again – who had fallen in love with a woman in Canada – Zelda occasionally traveled to her as an ‘unaccompanied minor’. Handed over to a mother who had abandoned her. Her father loves her, but she can’t quite figure out who he is. What drives him. Zelda is a lonely soul.

It is also typical of Grunberg that the relationship between parents and children is constantly under tension. In moles and Occupied territories (for my review look here) the complicated relationship between Kadoke, a psychiatrist, and his mother is central. Grunberg’s mother was his muse. He has featured her countless times in his columns, reports and his novels.

Hannelore Grünberg-Klein (1927-2015) was a funny, powerful and difficult woman. As a Jewish girl, she survived Auschwitz, but lost both her parents. As a mother, she could hardly let go of her son, whom she regarded as a child prodigy. As a boy of about 6, Arnon had sleeping problems, after which his mother came to sleep on a stretcher next to him every night. Because of his insomnia, Arnon was sent to the psychiatrist. According to Grunberg, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago in Boekhandel Plukker in Schagen, the psychiatrist said after the first consultation: ‘There is nothing wrong with the child, just let the parents come.’

According to Yra van Dijk, the author of Abyss without a safety net – Love and violence in the work of Arnon Grunberg (2019) that is where the basis of his oeuvre must be sought. In the traumatized relationship with the mother and her war past. How should you relate to the Holocaust? Or, as Van Dijk puts it: ‘How can we live with the realization that barbarism is part of what we perceive as civilization, even in our own present?’

The atmosphere of his earliest novels

Zelda’s coverage of her childhood ensures that Death in Taormina less in the atmosphere of Grunberg’s latest novels, but precisely in the atmosphere of his earliest novels Blue Mondays and extrasin which he described his own childhood. His high school days – he was expelled from the Vossius Gymnasium in Amsterdam – his craving for girls and his failed mission to become an actor.

Zelda leads a reckless, restless life. She sets out to save the men around her, to be ‘the midwife of desire’. As an adolescent she is a ‘decoy duck’ for a youth gang. As a young woman she works for the flamboyant Rasmus, who wants to bring reality to the stage in the opera ‘The Angel of Aleppo’.

Another thing: in Grunberg’s novels, the suffering of the world always intrudes. You could argue that he is a committed novelist, but never in the politician’s or pamphlet’s way. He is not only a realist, but also an absurdist. For example, Rasmus’ undertaking of recruiting refugee children to sing in the opera choir gives you an uneasy, abrasive feeling. That feeling is DNA Arnon.

Through Rasmus, Zelda gets to know Jona, a famous, older actor who leads a nomadic life. Grunberg has been fascinated by theater from an early age. He takes the game seriously. Jonah gives one-man performances on the assembly line. You never know what part he plays. “That’s what matters, what people can be.”

In an interview with Twan Huys in Buitenhof Grunberg told me that he thought of Pierre Bokma when he sketched Jona’s portrait. He has known the actor from the time when he himself still dreamed of a future in the theater. Bokma occurs frequently in No Lack of Defeats – Letters and Documents 1988-1994. Grunberg sees Bokma as a source of inspiration. A man who has elevated the game to an art form.

Zelda wants to rescue Jonah, offering the bum a home. Their dialogues produce beautiful, tragicomic scenes. Especially because you wonder why they are ‘actually’ so attracted to each other. It cannot be called love, ‘where we are love is not, therefore nothing can come between us’. But what is it then?


In addition to the relationship with Jonah, Zelda begins an affair with the desirable but unfathomable Swedish boy Per, the ‘cowboy without a cowboy hat’. When Jonah finds out what’s going on, he wants to meet Per too. To that end, the three of them travel to the Sicilian coastal town of Taormina, where the three of them book a room in the Altro Paradiso hotel. There a love triangle develops, which is derailed in every way. That’s where barbarism enters civilization.

Attention, spoilers! For those who don’t want to know anything about the plot, skip this paragraph. Grunberg told Gijs Groenteman in Plastic on NPO Radio 1 that the idea for his novel originated in Taormina. Grunberg was there with his girlfriend at the time – who appeared in his latest collection of essays, Butchers and psychiatrists, is described and speaks for herself about the end of their relationship – and her lover, who said to him: ‘Shall we drown the bitch?’ Grunberg was not only shocked by that comment, but also by his own reaction. He did nothing.

I wonder what the members of the Volkskrant Leesclub think about the intense and subtle plot of Death in Taormina find. And from my first tentative attempts to unravel some elements of Arnon’s DNA.

Reader’s guide about Death in Taormina, the new book we read in de Volkskrant Leesclub
Source link Reader’s guide about Death in Taormina, the new book we read in de Volkskrant Leesclub

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