The Jewish Messiah
Arnon Grunberg
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Buy *The Jewish Messiah* by Arnon Grunberg online

The Jewish Messiah
Arnon Grunberg
The Penguin Press
480 pages
January 2008
rated 2 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The premise is an astounding one. Xavier Radek, a sixteen-year-old Swiss boy, decides that he shall become a Jew and help bring comfort to the Jewish population. His decision is buoyed by his recent education in the atrocities of World War II and his grandfather's involvement in the SS. Grunberg's genius is to make Radek largely secular, unaware of Jewish tradition, devoid of any strong religious feeling, and something of a wit. The premise, and the promise, of The Jewish Messiah is very large indeed, but can Grunberg follow through, or has he bitten off more than he can chew?

The story of The Jewish Messiah revolves around Xavier Radek's desire to bring comfort to the Jews. Xavier's problem stems from his complete lack of awareness about the Jewish faith, but this doesn't stop him from befriending a young Jew, Awromele, and nor does it prevent him from becoming the Israeli Prime Minister in later life. Arnon Grunberg, himself a Jew, has set up what could be a very fine piece of satire. Xavier's resolution to protect the Jews, when it comes, looks like this:

'He had to comfort the Jews. No halfway measures, not an adhesive bandage here, a bit of mercurochrome there. To comfort and to comfort well -- that for starters -- then the rest would come of its own accord. Xavier felt a deep and formidable sympathy for them. For personal reasons, but also in general, for reasons of science.'
Awromele and Xavier decide to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish, and Xavier determines that the best way to provide comfort to the Jews is to write the Great Yiddish novel.

The problem of The Jewish Messiah is that the constellation of characters surrounding Xavier are devoid of anything resembling a personality, except, of course, whichever tic it is that makes them wacky or bizarre. Xavier's parents, for example, when not having sexual intercourse with knives (his mother) or indulging in massages from transgendered people and committing suicide (his father), are blank slates, characters wholly lacking any personality or awareness of themselves or others. An example of this comes early in the piece, when Xavier has decided upon circumcision. Xavier's mother, finding her son unconscious on her doorstep, his groin bleeding from the botched circumcision, tells him to go to his room and then busies herself in seducing her boyfriend. A few days later, when the stench of Xavier's rotting parts becomes unbearable, she chastises him for the mess his bleeding has caused: 'The mother dreaded taking her son to the hospital. She didn't know what she would tell the doctors. She knew many of them personally, from the Rotary Club.' Then, a little later,

'The blood-soaked bandage was still lying on the blanket...The mother thought the boy should learn to clean up after himself. Coddling him would be a mistake; if he was coddled, nothing would ever become of him.'
This after her son has been pleading for hours for water, for the hospital, for help. What is Grunberg attempting here? This scene, which is long and horrible and entirely revolves around Xavier's pain, which is ignored, must have meaning within the larger whole of the novel, else why is it here? A novel is a great mechanism, the gears and pulleys all working together to form a whole that moves fluidly and with purpose. This particular section is indicative of the whole, where characters not only do not care about one another, they are so self-absorbed that one old lady, spying Xavier and Awromele after they have been badly beaten up, instead of helping them to a hospital decides to take them sweater shopping. Meanwhile, Awromele is bleeding and moaning, and nobody seems to care.

Perhaps the greatest problem in The Jewish Messiah is one of scale. When the novel is satirical, it is biting, intelligent and funny, but often satire becomes absurdity, absurdity becomes farce, and even farce dissolves into the purely ridiculous. It is satirical to have a young boy wish to 'comfort the Jews' after he learns of their troubles during World War II. It is absurd to have him turn this comfort into sexual favors, and it is farce to have him become the Prime Minister of Israel. But Grunberg, as he does, takes it too far when he makes 'King David', Xavier's blue amputated testicle, the Redeemer.

'...those who did believe in the King did so with a rare fire and conviction. Children wrote letters to King David, grown-ups prayed to him, and photos and drawings of King David hung on the walls of living rooms and bedrooms all over the world.'
This is no longer satirical, and no longer funny.

When Xavier has (somehow) become Prime Minister of Israel and is meeting with the leader of Hamas, we are privy to such banalities as 'He would have liked to take him in his arms right then and tell him how much he loved him, but he knew this wasn't the moment for expressions of tenderness.' Like the rest of the novel, the emotional connection characters have with themselves and with others is severely dissociated from any form of reality. These characters are not believable; they are not even caricatures. They are, instead, paper figures which dance to an inscrutable tone devised by Grunberg. Is he attempting satire? Comedy? Farce? Satire requires an edge, comedy requires humor, and farce requires absurdity. The Jewish Messiah is missing these. The splashings of humor at the beginning of the novel indicate a promising beginning, but the middle and end utterly fail to live up to the initial potential. An author, promising a lot, needs to deliver lest the reader come away confused and, if the failure is large, with a feeling of betrayal. The Jewish Messiah betrays, and should be avoided.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Damian Kelleher, 2008

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