Dutch literary wunderkind Arnon Grunberg’s bio reads like a gonzo Horatio Alger story: dropped out of school at 17, wrote a prize winning novel by age 23, followed that with a couple more prize-winners and rocked the Dutch literary establishment with a pseudonym scandal. His newest novel, The Jewish Messiah, is out from Penguin Press. It’s about the good-intentioned if deranged quest of young Xavier Radek, the grandson of a dead SS officer, who takes it upon himself to save the Jews. What could go wrong?
So, what kind of reaction are you expecting?
The book’s been published in a few countries—not yet in Germany—but in the Netherlands, there was a small minority who really got upset about it. I’m not sure what to anticipate. If people just look at it like a novel, the reactions will be in the realm of a novel—they’ll like it or they’ll dislike it. They won’t take it personally. But you never know with these things.
When’s it coming out in Germany?
A German publisher bought it, but he decided to publish the other novels first. He’s afraid of the reactions [The Jewish Messiah] would cause in Germany. He told me it’s not the time yet to publish a book like this in Germany. Of course I disagree with him. I think I convinced him now that it has to be published, especially there, but it won’t happen before 2009.
There’s a Jewish Messiah galley on eBay right now.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t check, but I’m not surprised at all. I know how these things go.
The guy’s asking for $14.99. Is that a fair price?
I would be willing to pay that amount of money. Oh yes.
You have a reputation as a provocateur—is that something you intended?
I’m always happy with strong reactions, either positive or negative. I think the worst reaction you can get as an author is to have the critic say, “Oh, well, that’s nice.” When people are outraged, to a certain limit, it can make me happy; at least it’s a real reaction. It’s better than “nice.”
What’s the story with Marek van der Jagt, your former pseudonym?
I really hoped that people would not know it was me. I kept denying it, and then a linguist in Rome developed a computer program that established that Arnon Grunberg and Marek van der Jagt are the same. This scientist was interested in working on this computer program and used the case as an example. He wasn’t interested in me. Later, I found out that the computer program isn’t able to read Dutch or any language—it’s based on the sequence of the letters.
In addition to your novels, you frequently write for magazines and newspapers, and keep up a lively blog. Do you ever take time off?
I try to work every day a bit. I like it. When you work on a novel, you need to keep the rhythm. Why would you stop working on Sunday or Saturday? When I travel, I work. A few weeks ago I was in Afghanistan, and I didn’t have time to work on my novel, so I worked on something else.
What were you doing in Afghanistan?
I was embedded with Dutch troops there for the second time, and I reported on my trip there for a Dutch newspaper. It was a good experience. As an author, it was good to experience the war zone, or at least to come closer to a war zone that I’d ever been before. I want to report the other side—not so much the hard facts or the news, but the daily life.
That had to be frightening.
My first rocket attack was a terrifying moment. I would say it was much more terrifying when I went out of a camp and we were going to a city, and it was right after Ramadan, and they expected a suicide attack. Some of the military personnel didn’t want me to go, and some others said I could come with them, and at that moment, I felt that something could happen. I was terrified. I walked together with a major, and he said to look at it this way: If something happens, then it just wasn’t your day. It might sound cynical, but it did help. He was so completely at ease about it…. I would like to go back.