The Jewish Messiah. By Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. 2004, translated 2008. 470 pp. Penguin Press.
Ice. By Vladimir Sorokin. Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. 2002, translated 2007. 321 pp. New York Review Books.
Maybe it's because Americans don't read many books in translation, or maybe it's that readers are too Balkanized today for any one book to grab hold of good-sized chunk of their collective attention span. Or maybe it's that we're all just desensitized to disaster and can't be shocked by much of anything anymore. Whatever the case, Arnon Grunberg's The Jewish Messiah and Vladimir Sorokin's Ice should have produced a seizure in the reading public and the chattering classes by now, but they haven't. It's a bit of shame, since these satirical novels poke fun and ridicule and slander just about everything people hold dear today.
Grunberg's book is the funnier of the two, Sorokin's the darker and the one that weighs heavier on the reader, but it, too, gets its licks in. Literally.
Vladimir Sorokin has generated a great deal of controversy in his native Russia, not for Ice but for a novel whose title translates as Blue Lard. As Jamey Gambrell tells the story in this article ($), that novel tells of a homosexual tryst between Stalin and Khruschev, and a group of far-right Christian teenagers has rallied against both Sorokin and his publisher. Blue Lard hasn't been translated, so I haven't read it, but Ice has, and the its brutality is as punishing as the notion of Communist leaders getting it on is smirk-inducing.
The grim novel unfolds of scenes of a mysterious clan kidnapping a stranger, tying them to a tree in the forest, or a wall in a basement, and proceeding to pound on their exposed chests (women get the treatment, too) with a spectacular hammer until the kidnappers either hear the person's heart "speak," or the person passes out and dies. The tormentors hope for the best, and wish to hear the heart's voice, but it's no great loss if they don't.
The hammer is no normal hammer, of course, but has a head carved from a special block of ice. This is the mystical ice hammer. It turns out that the ice seems to have crashed into Earth from outer space, and is believed to have special powers. When subjects have had their chests crushed after a bludgeoning with the hammer, they appear to wake up, sternums in pieces, and understand their lives, and feel great contentment. Sorokin takes a grim satisfaction in relating the tales of these beatings, related through a terse and short burst of paragraphs. Here's poor Nikolaeva getting it:
"Nikolaeva whimpered. Tears ran from her eyes. So did her mascara.
Botvin swung back.
The hammer struck her sternum.
'That not it, hon,' said Botvin, shaking his head.
He drew back. The sun sparkled on the side of the hammer.
Another blow. The half-naked body shuddered.
Botvin and Neilands listened.
Nikolaeva's shoulders and head trembled. She hiccuped rapidly.
'Close, but no cigar.' Neilands frowned.
Botvin slowly drew the hammer to one side.
'Come on, luv...spea-ea-k!'
The powerful blow shook Nikolaeva. She lost consciousness. Her head hung limp. Her long blond hair covered her breast."
She gets hit another time, which breaks the hammer and which causes her heart to speak, and suffice to say that if this book of two burly Russians beating a blonde to unconsciousness turns up on the reading list of any presidential candidate, that candidacy is over. (The scene where Nikolaeva is forced to sit down on a wine bottle isn't going to win any undecided voters, either. At least, I hope it doesn't.)
It's grand enlightenment that's the end goal of these vicious beatings, group enlightenment as those whose hearts have been awakened begin to speak together. One by one, as the victims wake up in a hospital, their hearts speak at the same frequency as the person next to them, and both feel incredible peace, a one-ness with the person and with the universe.
Ice's second part takes the form of a science-fiction tale of the ice landing in a forest, its discovery, and the eventual adoption of it as the source of an all-knowing cult. The backstory of the brutality, whose wanton randomness catches the reader with almost as much surprise from page one as it does the victims, is laid out. The ice fell to Earth in the early 1930s, and its fate is charted through the twentieth century, as its followers withstand the post-World War II era, all the way up through Boris Yeltsin's tenure.
It's in Part III where this satire turns especially dark. The barely repressed glee Sorokin displays in Part I at his characters near- and occasional execution turns into an instruction manual. Now the ice is mass-produced, and consumers can strap themselves into a harness which will pound their chests with the ice. Sorokin lays out the method in antiseptic, technical language.
"If you experience any discomfort during the session, press the OFF button, which can be distinguished from the ON button by its rough surface."
It's then followed by several testimonials of people who found enlightenment after being bludgeoned, who no longer trudge through their dull lives, who aren't "opposed to progress" anymore.
But what does it all add up to? Sorokin appears to have no ultimate goal in this savage story, no one person or group he's condemning. Ice is all the scarier for its nihilism; Jonathan Swift at least had a point to his modest proposal. The victims of Ice gain peace, those who don't die, at least, but who or what may stand in for their persecutors in real life isn't all that clear. Hitchcock knew that leaving the audience to imagine the worst was more frightening than anything he could devise, and Sorokin takes us right up to that edge, having terrorized us along the way. It's merciless satire, literally.
Grunberg, on the other hand, creates hilarity out of brutality as his characters unintentionally mock Judaism and modern notions of tolerance as they try to save the world. Xavier Radek, his main character, had a grandfather who was a too-loyal SS officer, and the Swiss boy decides he will comfort the Jews. He isn't Jewish, of course, but this won't deter him. Such is Grunberg's mischief that this clueless adolescent turns up as the prime minister of Israel by the time the book is through.
As he works his way to being the comforter of the Jews, Radek endures a botched circumcision which leaves him one testicle short of a full set, tolerates the attentions of his mother's gay boyfriend, tries to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish with his best friend Awromele Michalowitz because it hasn't been done yet (so they think), and one of Awromele's teenage sisters is treated as an oral-sex toy by a group of Kierkegaard-loving older boys. (They also beat up Awromele.) Awromele's rabbi father betrays a love of transsexual prostitutes; Xavier's mother makes love to butter knife, which she mutilates her thighs with nightly; and a woman from the Mossad convinces an Egyptian Hamas supporter to become an informer through the power of her lips and tongue, having removed his pants. Oh, and Xavier names his worthless testicle King David, and proceeds to gain strength from it. And Xavier and Awromele are lovers. There really is something here to offend everyone.
Grunberg can get away with it since he tells the story with a panache to rival S.J. Perelman or Woody Allen, and nearly every page has a rejoinder or non-sequitur that catches you off-balance. Taken randomly, and, by the way, Xavier is a reasonably skilled painter:
"One hour before they were to meet, Xavier had launched into a new painting of the mother with testicle in hand. He now had three mothers with testicle, but it seemed wise to him to create an entire series."
A bit earlier, when Awromele explains that he's found a publisher for their Yiddish version of Mein Kampf:
"'I'm very pleased, Awromele, but what kind of a man is he?'
'The publisher? He has a background in TV.'"
And later on:
"Don't forget, Xavier, that you have only one testicle. You will always have to do your very best, because other men have two."
That's Xavier's mom.
"Love was something [Xavier] didn't know how to cope with. Fortunately, his parents had never smothered him with it."
I can't claim to have read every satirical novel since Portnoy's Complaint, which took Philip Roth from his lyrical and effusive novelist-self and launched him to being the poster-man of uninhibited male sexual desire in 1969. But Grunberg seems to be every bit as transgressive in The Jewish Messiah, and even more so, what with covering every possible sexual configuration (and I haven't listed all that are included here), as well as Judaism, Fascism, Zionism, and throwing in nationalist stereotypes as if they're as plain a fact the state capitals.
Grunberg presents the Swiss as uptight and so obsessed with their business that they fail to stop and help Xavier as he tries to rescue Awromele after he's beaten in a park, and Xavier's German mother is an apologist for her Nazi father who, she insists, was misunderstood. He only beat people to death because he had too much energy, and after all, they didn't have "jogging" in those days to stretch their muscles. "Sundays, he never beat anyone to death, because he honored the Lord's day. Even under such extreme conditions," says Xavier's mother, who apparently was never exposed to the life and works of Günter Grass.
There were passages of this that I cackled at, in spite of myself, as Xavier takes courage and heart from his lifeless testicle, time after time. Like Ice, though, it ultimately ends bleakly. Xavier has gone out of his mind with power, and has sold nuclear weapons to renegade states the world over, and has started a nuclear war. One of Awromele's sisters has lived her life convinced that the Messiah will arrive in the form of a pelican, which explains the cover image of a pelican depicted as one of those Art Deco eagles the Third Reich was so fond of, and she comforts her children that the pelican will be here soon, just before a bomb smashes into Zurich.
Taken together, the two novels paint satire with black tar and bright primary colors. Sorokin's story will keep you awake after you set it down, and Grunberg approaches serious topics with the gleam you see in the eye of a fierce comic, but both are honest depictions of the hollow, mindlessly cruel world we live in.
Photo of Grunberg: Bob Bronshoff