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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

De man zonder ziekte

by
Arnon Grunberg


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author



Title: De man zonder ziekte
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 224 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: L'Homme sans maladie - France
Der Mann, der nie krank war - Deutschland
  • De man zonder ziekte has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective tale of descent into the contemporary abyss

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 24/9/2014 Eric Neuhoff
Libération . 20/8/2014 Philippe Lançon
Le Monde A 6/11/2014 Raphaëlle Leyris
NRC . 25/5/2012 Arjen Fortuin
Die Zeit . 27/11/2014 Merten Worthmann


  From the Reviews:
  • "Son comique de répétition, propre aux rêves récurrents, glisse dans nos peurs les particules de l’actualité, qui ressemble tant, comme ses personnages, à de la bande dessinée." - Philippe Lançon, Libération

  • "Virtuose conte cruel sur les illusions occidentales et sur la crédulité (de son héros comme de son lecteur), L’Homme sans maladie constitue une formidable porte d’entrée dans l’œuvre d’Arnon Grunberg, écrivain parmi les plus passionnants de sa ­génération." - Raphaëlle Leyris, Le Monde

  • "De man zonder ziekte blijkt precies zo in elkaar te zitten als het gebouw dat Sam in Dubai moet maken: boven een schitterende bibliotheek vol ornamenten en aardigheden (de piekfijne novelle) met daaronder een bunker. En het gaat om de bunker. Daar bevindt zich het ware verhaal van Sam, waarin zijn onschuld ineens niet meer vanzelfsprekend is. Vooral zie je daar het werkelijke thema van de roman, die uiteindelijk draait om wat we zien en wat we niet zien. Preciezer: wanneer we kijken en wanneer we wegkijken." - Arjen Fortuin, NRC

  • "Grünbergs radikal unaufgeregte Prosa läuft auf keinerlei überraschende Enthüllung hinaus. Eher auf ein zartes, immer stärker am Leser nagendes Unwohlsein. (...) (E)s ist schon erstaunlich, wie dieser Roman trotz seines mausgrauen Tons schließlich geradezu gespenstische Züge gewinnt und wie er trotz seiner Geradlinigkeit immer wieder neue gedankliche Nebengleise eröffnet. Komisch ist er außerdem, wenn auch mitunter auf nahezu schmerzliche Art und Weise." - Merten Worthmann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title De man zonder ziekte ('The Man without Illness', the Dutch Foundation for Literature site suggests -- literally accurately, if not very appealingly) of course immediately calls to mind Musil's The Man without Qualities (De man zonder eigenschappen in Dutch), and protagonist Samarendra Ambani's condition can well be seen as a modern-day variation on Ulrich's from Musil's novel -- soon further reïnforced by the descriptions of the character's closeness to his sister. (Interestingly, the German translation went with a different wording for the title, ditching the Musil allusion.)
       Samarendra Ambani is Swiss, through and through; his father emigrated from India before his birth and married a local woman, and Samarendra's name was pretty much his only concession to those roots -- and, for everyone except his mother, he is, in any case, 'Sam'. Sam is an architect, building up a firm he runs with a colleague; he apprenticed with a prominent architect and seems to be on the way to establishing himself as well. And yes, he has always been extraordinarily healthy; he has always been 'the man without illness' -- and:

Wat hij verder ook is en nog zal worden, hij is vooral gezond, geestelijk en lichamelijk.

[Whatever else he is and might become, above all he is healthy, mentally and physically.]
       This also stands in stark contrast to his sister, Aida, five years his junior and suffering from a terminal wasting disease that affects her muscles - with some doctors finding it surprising she hasn't died yet. Sam is devoted to his almost entirely housebound sister, who is otherwise attended to by their mother; their father passed away when he was sixteen. Sam feels a close connection to his sister -- and often still showers with her, one of many things she can't do by herself. (Rather than just wash her separately, Sam takes her into the bath with him, suggesting an intimacy that borders at least on the disturbing.) Among his ambitions is to earn enough to be able to afford the experimental treatment in the US that might help her condition, even if the success rate is still very low. Sam also has a girlfriend, Nina; he can see them getting married, though he isn't quite there yet.
       The two-part novel centers on two different projects in the Middle East Sam gets involved in. First, he enters an architectural competition announced by an organization called the World Wide Design Consortium, for plans to build an opera house in Baghdad. The idea catches his fancy -- and his submission meets with success, as he is one of the three finalists then invited to Baghdad. True, there's little information to be found online about the World Wide Design Consortium (WWDC) -- or then the two other finalists -- but Sam does manage to speak to the founder of the WWDC, a wealthy London-based Iraqi exile named Hamid Shakir Mahmoud, whose great dream it is to bring an opera house to Baghdad. And the temptation to follow in the footsteps of Frank Lloyd Wright and accomplish what the great master was unable to carry out (Wright was invited to design a Baghdad opera house, and visited the Iraqi capital in the late 1950s) is too tempting to pass up.
       With his expenses paid, Sam sets off for Iraq -- flying to Erbil rather than directly to Baghdad, where he is picked up and eventually driven to the capital, with a sizable security detail to apparently ensure his safety. Sam is a man of blueprints, everything carefully thought of ahead of time, but things do not go according to plan here. Insurmountable hurdles arise regarding meeting Mahmoud, and while Sam is taken care of in what amounts to a safe house, he quickly feels at sea. When he decides to abandon ship, heading out into the streets of Baghdad by himself, things do not go well. He gets arrested, is taken for a spy, and is interrogated fairly seriously. It takes a while for the local Swiss representatives to become aware of his situation, and then help free him.
       The treatment he suffered is enough to damage Sam. He tries to simply put what happened behind him but, as made obvious by what he asks from Nina in their more intimate exchanges, it has fundamentally scarred him. (He brings the humiliations of how he was treated back to the bedroom -- or bath -- and Nina, after her initial surprise and reluctance, proves most accommodating; their relationship is marked by a mutual eagerness to please -- or to go along with what is expected --, but is also decidedly creepily tinged, very effectively presented by Grunberg.)
       Sam has always been accommodating too, especially in his professional capacity -- part of what seems to have drawn him to this profession:
Zo was hij: een toegewijd en dienend architect, vanuit alle perspectieven kon hij naar de wereld kijken, moeiteloos verplaatste hij zich in al zijn opdrachtgevers.

[That's how he was: a dedicated and deferential architect who could consider the world from all perspectives, effortlessly seeing completely through his clients' eyes.]
       But for all his seeming understanding, his remains a limited, blinkered view: he thinks he gets it, but clearly a lot remains outside his field of vision.
       The Middle East remains the new 'Mecca for architects' -- that's where the money and opportunities are -- and Sam and his partner land a big commission there: to build a national library for Dubai, large enough to hold all the books of the world as well as the state archives. Oh, yes, and the design also has to include a huge bunker underneath. In January 2010, Sam and his partner travel to Dubai for a few days to present their project. It all goes well -- though an annoyed Sam does change hotel rooms, at the luxury Al Bustan Rotana hotel, because of the noise in the next room .....
       When the project gets underway, Sam returns to Dubai alone to oversee things, and finds himself again in a strange environment, harmless-seeming enough, but with a sense of pervasive low-level hostility. (So also even in his rooms Sam is constantly confronted with cockroaches.) Still, the project seems to be going along decently enough -- though he can't help but notice that there seems to be a greater focus on the bunker part than the library (and indeed the whole project was enlarged because they decided they wanted a bigger bunker -- which also meant making the library part bigger).
       An easily avoidable -- he's repeatedly offered an alternative but wants to go it on his own, setting up his own demise -- and initially minor-seeming misstep then quickly leads to true disaster, with Sam then finding himself again in the clutches of the authorities, who easily connect Sam's contacts and movements with a different series of events. Suddenly, there are more sinister undertones to his seemingly so innocent profession -- Sam as: 'the Architect' -- and his defining characteristic -- as 'The Man without Illness'. Caught up in this spiral, Sam can only watch in rather stunned and helpless amazement as things move to their inevitable conclusion. When not even efficient Swiss diplomacy can help you out -- beyond providing adequate toilet paper -- you know you're in deep trouble .....
       De man zonder ziekte is a fatalistic novel. Sam is devoted to his work, and to his sister, and ill-equipped to navigate anything beyond. He works by blueprint, and adjusts poorly to anything outside the lines -- ensuring his fate. In Nina he finds an appropriate partner -- but she is also really only 'appropriate' (and he sees her this way, too), with no true passion to their relationship. Meanwhile, as Sam moves blindly to his fate, his sister -- the one person he is completely devoted to -- struggles with hers; immobilized and unable to speak clearly, she nevertheless manages to communicate her own death-wish to her brother -- something he remains completely deaf to, refusing to hear what his sister makes clear to him. Ironically, for all her debilitation and desperate wish for a way out, she is condemned to live.
       Sam is not only a 'man without illness'. As Nina notes at one point, he is also a man without authority -- and he proves to be a mere tool, a blank sheet of sorts which others can shape to their needs (including her); only his sister, with whom his bond is real and deep -- the only part of him recognizably truly human --, can not manipulate him to her ends. In the end, he admits he is also a man without faith. He is proud to be Swiss -- neutral, punctilious -- but he can't escape the real-world realities of a world of much more complex actions and interactions; his appearance already makes it difficult to convince others that he is Swiss, so there's always that to deal with, and the clockwork-function of his homeland has also led him to take for granted that every elsewhere is more disorderly. He fails to adapt, and so he fails: his dream is of building an opera house in Baghdad, but an opera house is not exactly what Baghdad most needs right now.
       Grunberg's straightforward narration makes for a picture of calm and the reasonable -- even as many of the situations are extreme. There are irritants in Sam's life -- noisy people in the next hotel room; cockroaches everywhere he goes in the Middle East -- but even these are straightforwardly described, and his state of essential disbelief, wondering how this can be happening to him as he finds himself in the role of a sort of fall guy, pushed, step by step, to an absurd end, practically watching it all at a remove (Sam rarely feels -- or is able to be -- in any way involved in things, and this is especially true in the later stages of his story) is as much comic as tragic. Impressively, too, an underlying uneasiness quickly emerges in the story -- and Grunberg sustains it well for the whole of the novel.
       Connecting the story with real-life events -- one in particular -- is slightly problematic, but works reasonably well -- and the potential ambiguity of who Sam really is that emerges because of it is a quite effective twist.
       Characters in Grunberg's novels often find themselves tumbling helplessly into the abyss, in an almost inevitable-seeming arc that might be sparked by their own (often well-meaning) ineptness and awkwardness but quickly grows all out of any proportion, and in De man zonder ziekte he has presented such a story nicely, quickly, and hauntingly. It is also quite effective as a reflection of modern-day life, and contrasting, conflicting worlds (and the inability of 'Westerners' to adapt to the very different (not-exactly-)rules and conditions of other cultures).

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2019

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Links:

De man zonder ziekte: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

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© 2019 the complete review

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