Friday, 31 January 2014

The Jewish Messiah by Arnon Grunberg (translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett)

What We Thought: 

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series

Growing up in Basel, Xavier Radek feels a calling, so undertakes to comfort the Jews. He decides to convert to Judaism, learn Yiddish and get circumcised. Awromele, the local rabbi’s son agrees to help him. The Yiddish goes well, the circumcision less so. Mr Schwartz, a cheese importer with failing eyesight, botches the operation and Xavier loses a testicle.

With his unattached testicle (christened King David) in a jar, and thinking only of Awromele, Xavier returns home. But his mother’s new boyfriend thinks only of Xavier, so she embarks on a new sexual adventure. With a kitchen knife.

Awromele and Xavier’s relationship grows, on the condition that neither allows himself to feel anything. Their new project is translating Mein Kampf into Yiddish. "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."

Such an audacious premise takes true skill to balance prejudice, religious sensitivity, and historical memory with gorgeously crafted writing, character and pace. The former Grunberg handles perfectly. The themes provoke consideration, and many set pieces make you laugh aloud while wincing in pain. And all the while, you’re checking over your shoulder for the political correctness police.

It is a satirical farce, written with an acidic intelligence which rejects kid gloves, taking on subjects most writers would not touch with rubber ones. Grunberg is an astounding writer, but his best may be yet to come.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: pitch-black comedy, Ned Beauman, transgressing taboos

Avoid if you dislike: irreverence towards religion/history, gay romance, the grotesque

Ideal accompaniments: Pickles, sloe gin and Kurt Weill

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

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