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Jörgen Hofmeester once had it all: a beautiful wife, a nice house with a garden in an upperclass neighborhood in Amsterdam, a respectable job as an editor, two lovely daughters named Ibi and Tirza, and a large amount of money in a Swiss bank account. But during the preparations for Tirza's graduation party, we come to know what he has lost. His wife has left him; Ibi is starting a bed and breakfast in France, an idea which he opposed; the director of the publishing house has ...
Jörgen Hofmeester once had it all: a beautiful wife, a nice house with a garden in an upperclass neighborhood in Amsterdam, a respectable job as an editor, two lovely daughters named Ibi and Tirza, and a large amount of money in a Swiss bank account. But during the preparations for Tirza's graduation party, we come to know what he has lost. His wife has left him; Ibi is starting a bed and breakfast in France, an idea which he opposed; the director of the publishing house has fired him; and his savings have vanished in the wake of 9/11.
But Hofmeester still has Tirza, until she introduces him to her new boyfriend, Choukri—who bears a disturbing resemblance to Mohammed Atta—and they announce their plan to spend several months in Africa. A heartrending and masterful story of a man seeking redemption, Tirza marks a high point in Grunberg's still-developing oeuvre.
Jörgen Hofmeester is in the kitchen, cutting tuna for the party. With his left hand he clutches the raw fish. He wields the knife the way he learned during the "Make your own sushi and sashimi" course he took with his wife five years ago. Don't exert too much pressure, that's the trick.
The kitchen door is ajar. The evening is sultry, the way Tirza had hoped. She's been poring over the weather reports for the last few days, as though the success of her party depended on the weather.
Before long the garden will be taken over by partygoers. Plants will be trampled. Young people will sit on the little wooden steps leading to the living room, others will drape themselves over the four garden chairs Hofmeester bought when they moved here. And yet others will find their way into the little shed where, after parties in the past, Hofmeester has found empty beer bottles and half-filled glasses of wine beside the mower, bottles with exotic labels lined up around the chainsaw he uses to prune the apple tree on Sundays in the spring and fall. A bag of chips someone forgot to open, and which he polished off himself one morning without thinking about it.
Tirza has thrown parties before, but tonight is different. Like lives, parties can be a failure or a success. Tirza hasn't said it in so many words, but Hofmeester senses that a great deal depends on this evening. Tirza, his youngest daughter, the one who turned out best. Turned out wonderfully, both inside and out.
Hofmeester's shirtsleeves are rolled up. To keep his clothes clean he is wearing an apron, which he bought once as a Mother's Day present. He looks quite masculine, especially for him. It's been six days since he's shaved. He's had no time for that. From the moment he got up in the morning he was occupied by thoughts he'd never had before, at least not to this extent: plans, memories of the children from when they could barely crawl, ideas that seemed brilliant to him in the early morning light. Later on he'll catch a quick shave. Presentable and charming, that's how he wants to come across. That is how the partygoers will see him: as a man who has not lived his life in vain.
He will make the rounds with sushi and sashimi, neatly arranged on the platter he bought at the Japanese shop just for this occasion. He will stop here and there to chat with guests, telling them offhand: "Be sure to try the squid sashimi." A self-effacing parent, that's what he'll be. That is the secret of good parenthood: efface thyself. Parental love is the sacrifice made in silence. All love is a sacrifice. Looking at him, no one will notice a thing. And what would they notice? Some of them will congratulate him on Tirza's impressive grades, one of the teachers who has been invited will ask what Tirza is planning to do next, to which he'll reply, platter in hand: "She's going to travel for a bit first. Namibia. South Africa. Botswana. Then she's coming back to study." An excellent host is what he'll be, with eyes in the back of his head. Not only will he provide his guests with food and drink, he'll also keep close watch over the lonely and neglected. Those who have no one to talk to but their own glass or their own plate of sushi, Hofmeester will entertain. The shy partygoers he will offer his company. And dancing, there will be dancing.
Hofmeester sticks his hand in a tub of tepid rice, he kneads it, and while he does he looks at the frame of the kitchen door, as though this were the first time he had ever worked at this counter. He sees the flaking paint, the dull spot on the wallpaper beside the doorframe left by a shoe Tirza once threw at his head. After she threw it, she had shouted, "Dickhead." Or was it before she threw it, he can't quite remember anymore. Pure luck that it didn't break the window.
He looks at the rice in his hand. The Japanese are always better at this kind of thing. Hofmeester's sushi is formless. The zeal with which he kneads amazes him, the same kind of amazement he feels at stupid things he's done in the past. The kind of stupid things that didn't cause too much damage.
He glances again at the flaking paint, which reminds him of his own skin. He's got a special ointment for that, but hasn't gotten around to using it for a few days. Still holding the rice in one hand, he starts thinking about selling this house, his house. At first he doesn't take it too seriously, he thinks about it the way you think about things that aren't going to happen anyway. Having yourself quick-frozen, for example, and then brought back to life a hundred years later. But slowly the conviction grows. The time is ripe. How long should he wait, and for what?
These are plans he would once have rejected out of hand. His house was his pride and joy. The apple tree, which he'd planted himself, his third child. The thought of selling house and apple tree, should things get tough, was one he'd entertained before, but how could he? It would be impossible, unnatural. Where would he go with his family? The apple tree was too big to dig up. He was fettered to this house, fettered to the whole thing. And when friends and acquaintances could no longer come up with something nice to say about Hofmeester, which happened from time to time, there was always someone who noted: "But Jörgen does live in style!"
To live in style. That was crucial to Hofmeester. Ambition had to manifest itself in something. Usually an address. And whenever he mentioned that address, a certain grimness came over him. As though his identity, everything he was and everything for which he stood, was balled up together in a street name, a number and a zip code. It was that zip code, more even than the name Hofmeester itself, more than his profession or the master's degree he sometimes claimed, without bending the facts too much, that spoke of who he was and who he wanted to be.
There is no longer any need for him to live in style. As he drapes a slice of tuna over the rice, that realization, the realization that it is no longer necessary, comes as a relief.
He is too old to be fired, that's what they've told him in not so many words. And when you're too old to be fired, you're also too old to live in style. When the nursing home is only a decade down the pike, that hardly matters anymore. He knows people his age who are already going senile. Admittedly, most of them had been heavy drinkers.
Away from this house, away from this neighborhood, away from this town, those are the only things that occur to him when he searches for the meaning of the word "solution." There are people who wake up each morning with the thought: There's got to be a solution for all of this, things can't go on like this. Hofmeester is one of those.
His children have left home or are getting ready to do so, his work has dwindled to a rarified activity that has nothing more to do with productivity, only with the biding of time. He could take off for Eastern Europe. Back when he was studying German, back when he held forth on the Expressionist poets as though he had known them personally, he had planned to move to Berlin and write the definitive work on Expressionist poetry. He could still do that. It was never too late for a book like that.
He could do without his zip code, without the impression his address made on some people. The air of success that clung to it. The smell of success. Now that his youngest daughter is leaving for Africa, it's time for him to shed his zip code. No more PTA meetings to attend, no more teachers to shake hands with. Who is left to impress?
The only things binding him to this place, he has to admit, are sentimentality and the fear of change. And seeing as Hofmeester has arrived at a point in his life where what he needs most is ready cash and an escape route, he vows to stop worrying so much about sentimentality and fear.
He slices the tuna hastily. That's how the sushi master does it, chop, chop, chop. The fish must welcome the knife as a friend. He puts a slice of tuna in his mouth. The shrimp are waiting on a saucer for their rice.
That morning he had driven out to the restaurant wholesaler's in Diemen. The raw tuna on his tongue is a pleasant sensation. Freshness. That's what sashimi is all about.
His wife comes into the kitchen in her bathrobe, wearing flip-flops. "Did Ibi call?" she asks.
Hofmeester still isn't used to having her back, after she ran out on him, three years ago now. The "Make your own sushi and sashimi" course hadn't helped.
But despite all expectations, she came back anyway. Six days ago. Around seven in the evening.
Hofmeester was in the kitchen at the time. After his wife ran away he'd started spending a lot of time in the kitchen, but even before that, actually. The stove was where he did his real work. The wife had never felt compelled to do much in the kitchen. Her talents were grander than lasagna, more pressing than the raising of children. There had always been something in her life that weighed more heavily than providing sustenance for her family.
Six days ago the doorbell rang, and Hofmeester had shouted: "Tirza, could you get that?"
"Daddy, I'm on the phone," she yelled back.
Tirza spent a lot of time on the phone. That was normal, other parents told him. Talking on the phone can become a hobby. He didn't talk much on the phone. When the phone rang it was always for Tirza. And the father, like a skilled employee and excellent daddy, would say: "You can reach her on her cell phone. I'll give you the number."
That evening, six days ago, Hofmeester had been fixing a casserole. The recipe was from a cookbook. As soon as the wife left, Hofmeester had begun assembling an impressive lineup of cookbooks. Improvisation was something he'd never seen as a sign of creativity, only of laziness. To him, the recipe was sacred. A teaspoon is a teaspoon. He couldn't walk away from the kitchen right then. The oven was at just the right temperature. He had already slid the casserole into it.
"Tirza, would you please get that?" he'd shouted again. "I can't go right now. It's probably the neighbor. Tell him I'll come by later in the evening. Please open the door, Tirza!"
The neighbor, a young man who isn't really all that young anymore but who is is still officially single, occupies the top floor of this house that Hofmeester got for such a bargain in the late 70s. The young man, who is studying to be a notary, regularly complains to Hofmeester about all kinds of things, and often about the same thing: the stench in the bathroom. He comes to the door at least once a week with complaints and tales of woe.
And Hofmeester always promises to see to it, even though two reliable plumbers have told him there isn't much to do about it unless he replaces all the plumbing, which would cost him a fortune. He doesn't have a fortune, and even if he did he wouldn't dream of spending it on new plumbing.
Hofmeester, in addition to everything else, is a landlord.
He heard Tirza swear, heard her go to the front door. Then all was quiet and he turned once again to his casserole, in the conviction that the tenant was at the door with unsolicited advice and thinly veiled threats.
The rent commission, prominent lawyers, the board of housing. Is there anything he hasn't been threatened with? During his life as a landlord Hofmeester has received visits from all of them, but they never succeeded in backing him into a corner. Hofmeester the beast was one tough cookie.
A minute later, it couldn't have been any longer, Tirza came into the kitchen. He thought she looked pale, desperate. That, however, was something he had apparently tacked on to the story later; apparently, she always looked that way. The desperation had one day risen to the surface in her features, without him noticing, and had never gone away again.
"It's Mama," she said.
Acting on a hunch, he pulled the casserole out of the oven and turned off the gas. He stared at the oven dish. Cod and potatoes. Simple yet delicious. This, he knew, could take awhile. This was no mere stench in the tenant's bathroom. This, for a change, was not the sewer, this was the mother of his children.
Wives may not pay rent, but like the tenant, who remains by definition in a permanent state of war with the landlord, they complain. The complaint: that is what wife and tenant have in common. The accusation. The nagging. And, behind it all, dependency lingers like a disease.
Housing boards, rent inspectors, lawyers: he had shaken them all off and sent them packing, but the woman who hid behind the obsolete word "mama" had never let herself be brushed off. She was more dangerous than the board of housing, more cunning than the rent inspector.
Still holding the dishtowel he had used to pull the casserole out of the oven, he went to the door. He was surprised. To choose this night, of all nights, to come back. At dinner time.
For the first few months after she had disappeared, for that whole first year actually, hardly a day went by when he didn't expect her back. Sometimes he even called home from work to see if she would answer. She still had the keys, and he hadn't changed the locks. He couldn't believe she would never come back again. He couldn't imagine her wanting to exchange this address for an inferior one, a much more banal, inconsequential one. A houseboat, that's what she'd said.
But as time went by he had to admit that he had judged wrongly: she didn't come back. She didn't even go to the trouble of getting in touch with him or picking up the rest of her things. She was gone, and she remained gone. He learned to live with her silence, just as before that he had learned to live with her presence.
At first the wife had maintained sporadic contact with his eldest daughter, Ibi. They would meet downtown, at a café frequented by people who don't want to be seen together. But, later even that contact faded. Hofmeester never got to hear much about those meetings, and he didn't push Ibi, whose real name was Isabella, but who everyone had called Ibi from the day she was born. No, the things Ibi and her mother talked about was between the two of them. Tirza wanted nothing to do with her mother, and from the day she left the wife had not spoken a word with him, the father of her children. Not even a letter or an email. Hofmeester knew she was still alive, that after the episode in the houseboat she had gone abroad, but his knowledge reached no further than that. Between here and abroad, that was where the black hole began. And he regretted that.
The longer the silence lasted, the more regret he felt. Time does not heal all wounds, he discovered, time rips wounds open, brings on blood poisoning and infections. Death might put an end to all pain, but time did not.
Of course Hofmeester could have called her himself, or sent a postcard, but he did neither. He had his pride; he waited in silence for her to see the error of her ways. An old f lame who lived on a houseboat, that had to be an error. What else could it be? A houseboat, after all, was an error in itself. And so he lived on quietly, waiting for insight to descend on his wife.
At first he had lived on with two children. But after six months the eldest did what she'd seen her mother do: she left home.
Whenever the doorbell rang in the evening, during those first few months, he would catch himself thinking: That must be her, the wife, she's come back. But as time passed the waiting became second nature, an empty habit, and hope disappeared along with the expectation. The mother of his children had gone away. That was a fact, and facts are called facts because there is usually nothing that can be done about them.
But now here she was, in all her glory, fact or no fact. Standing in the vestibule. Lugging the same suitcase she'd had when she left. A red one on wheels. She had walked out the door calmly; her departure, at least, had caused barely a ripple.
Seeing his wife affected him more than he'd thought it would, just a moment ago, as he was putting the casserole down safely on the kitchen counter. Why? Hofmeester wondered. Why tonight? What's going on? He didn't understand the reason for this visit, and Hofmeester was a person who wanted to understand things. He detested the irrational, the way other people detest vermin.
Excerpted from Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, Sam Garrett. Copyright © 2006 Arnon Grunberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN LETTER.
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