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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Jewish Messiah

Arnon Grunberg

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To purchase The Jewish Messiah

Title: The Jewish Messiah
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 470 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Jewish Messiah - US
The Jewish Messiah - UK
The Jewish Messiah - Canada
The Jewish Messiah - India
Le Messie juif - France
Der jüdische Messias - Deutschland
Il messia ebreo - Italia
El mesías judío - España
  • Dutch title: De joodse messias
  • Translated by Sam Garrett

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Our Assessment:

B : good ideas and a good start, but falls apart in just going through the motions in its conclusion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 20/1/2008 Donna Seaman
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/10/2011 Tim Parks
Het Parool . 23/9/2004 Arie Storm

  From the Reviews:
  • "Grunberg is a master of stealthy wit, land mine-like understatement, whiplash dialogue and lacerating social commentary. Every character is brought to excruciatingly vivid life in sharply etched if ludicrous scenes of menace, subterfuge, grotesque psychosis and diabolical cruelty. Each shrewdly constructed and unnerving encounter is designed to expose hypocrisy, guilt, pain, ignorance and unreason, the chemistry of inhumanity. While Grunberg's absurdist parody is devilishly clever and robustly ironic, it is too grim and freighted for laugh-out-loud humor." - Donna Seaman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Maar er zijn nog wat andere factoren die deze roman tot een van de zwakkere van Grunberg maken. Grunberg heeft gekozen voor een specifiek perspectief, namelijk dat van de alwetende verteller. En op de een of andere manier werkt dat hopeloos vertragend. (...) De joodse messias is eigenlijk al met al één grote, lang uitgerekte grap (494 bladzijden), die, omdat je vrij snel alle procédés die erin worden gebruikt doorhebt, behoorlijk snel verveelt." - Arie Storm, Het Parool

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:

       Arnon Grunberg takes a pretty clever idea and for a while he runs with it in The Jewish Messiah. The novel centres around Xavier Radek, a teen from Basel who becomes interested in people's suffering:

     People suffered, that much was certain. So why not the boy ? What was wrong with him ?
       Xavier had a very dedicated grand-father, a man who had ideals and was willing to do anything for them. Unfortunately, he came of age under the Nazis, and it was that ideology that he fully embraced and dedicated himself to. He was the perfect little Nazi, doing what had to be done, and he died on the Eastern front for his principles. Xavier is no Nazi, but he is similarly driven by principle -- even as he isn't sure what principle to devote himself to.
       It takes him a while, but finally he knows what he has to do:
     He had to comfort the Jews. No halfway measures, not an adhesive bandage here, a bit of mercuchrome 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.
     The Christians had Jesus, the capitalists had profit maximalization, the Buddhists would gradually melt into Nothingness, the socialists could uplift the wage slaves -- three evenings a week, in the open air when the weather allowed -- but the Jews had nothing. No messiah, a God who never showed, and everyone hated them
       Among his ideas -- "To provide structural comfort for the Jews" -- is to write the 'Great Yiddish Novel'. First he has to learn the language, however, and to do that he befriends a local rabbi's son, Awromele, to tutor him.
       Xavier wants to commit himself fully, and so he doesn't just want to understand Judaism, he wants to become Jewish. He even decides to get circumcised, but because he wants to do it on the cheap (and without his parents knowing about it) he doesn't get the procedure done in a hospital, but lets Awromele arrange a back-alley circumcision. The fact that Mr.Schwartz -- a retired cheese importer -- is reading the newspaper with a huge magnifying glass when they go to the appointment should have been enough to make him realise that this probably wasn't such a good idea but, despite voicing some doubts, he goes through with it. Needless to say, things do not go well.
       There are some after-care problems too, as Xavier's mother is annoyed by the boy's strange recent interests and sees his suffering from a particularly warped maternal point of view, exacerbating the problem. Among the results is that, far from providing comfort to the Jews, Xavier is indirectly responsible for Mr.Schwartz being accused of child molestation -- Pedophile Lenin, they call him --, driving him to his death.
       Parallels spring up: Xavier winds up with only one testicle -- just like Hitler did -- and he takes to painting, just as Hitler had. Unlike Hitler, Xavier is admitted to an art academy -- in Amsterdam -- but they also find his talents somewhat limited, and push him more towards photography. And then there's the big project Xavier and Awromele are working on. Not the 'Great Yiddish Novel', but rather translating Mein Kampf into Yiddish. Awromele, infected by Xavier's idea, even finds a publisher:
"The man I talked to, he's never read the original, but he said he could tell that it was a book for a literate audience. The high end of the market is still a growth market, he said. The time is ripe for a Yiddish translation of Mein Kampf."
       Indeed, the rabbi's son is very enthusiastic as the work progresses:
     "It's a fascinating book," Awromele said. "It's got pace, it's got momentum, it's full of humour, and I think the writer has a good story to tell. We've struck gold."
       So the one-testicled failed painter brings Mein Kampf (and his testicle-in-a-jar) to the Jews ..... And, yes, Xavier (and his sidekick Awromele) move to Israel, too, and, yes, Xavier continues to try to bring comfort to the Jews. When it goes wrong now, it goes wrong on a grander scale, as Xavier resembles the Jewish messiah more and more. The Hitler-parallels don't fit perfectly, but Xavier's final vision and acts are similarly grandiose, destructive, and catastrophic.
       Grunberg has a nice touch early on in setting up the story, Xavier's search for purpose -- and how he handles those around him (his parents, the rabbi and his family, his girlfriend) -- completely convincing, teenage obsessive single-mindedness (and willingness to experiment) nicely coupled with proper Swiss manners. Yes, he dyed his hair blue for a while -- but only:
because the young people he associated with had switched en masse that month, it was in May, to a brighter hair color, and he felt it was his duty to support them not only with words but with deeds. By nature, he felt the need to make other comfortable; he had a knack for politics and diplomacy.
       Grunberg also takes his time with the story here, allowing Xavier to writhe in agony for many pages after the botched circumcision, for example. It shifts the focus to his family -- his mother, and the new step-father figure in his life, Marc (after dad died) --, and allows more background to be explored: mom's own troubles and relationship with her son, and Marc's growing infatuation with the boy. Other story-lines are also fleshed out, such as surrounding the rabbi's family, as well a local low-level Egyptian drug-dealer whose life intersects with that of several of the characters. Xavier and Awromele's relationship also develops into a full-fledged love affair and partnership, though Awromele eventually becomes quite the promiscuous lover while Xavier merely gets jealous.
       After lingering so long over these details the book speeds up, gaining momentum and jumping quickly over the years. Unfortunately, too, it's mostly downhill here. Suddenly, he's willing to jump far, far ahead from one paragraph to the next -- "After eight years in city politics, Xavier announced that he was going into national politics". The finale comes almost in summary-form, Grunberg just whizzing through it, with none of the careful build-up that worked so well at the beginning. It's like he lost patience with the book and just wanted to quickly tie everything together. As a result, what's meant to be a very dramatic conclusion feels almost anti-climactic.
       The Jewish Messiah is a long book but ultimately feels entirely too quick, the abrupt ending almost completely out of place -- or rather: reading almost like the outline of the ending. The ideas are good, the execution disappointing -- and all the more so because Grunberg shows what he really can do for large stretches of the novel. Even there, not everything fits entirely together or is best-used (so, for example, the story of Awromele's sister), but much is quite splendid. But the work as a whole falls short.
       An interesting idea, and much of the novel is quite good, but unfortunately Grunberg can't see it through to the bitter end.

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The Jewish Messiah: 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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© 2007-2023 the complete review

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