The Issue of Ethnic Identity in Arnon Grunberg’s Dutch and American Novels [1999]

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The Issue of Ethnic Identity in Arnon Grunberg’s Dutch and American Novels [1999]
  The Issue of Ethnic Identity in Arnon Grunberg’s Dutch and AmericanNovels [MLA 2001] Carl NiekerkDepartment of Germanic LanguagesUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign It is not entirely unproblematic to use concepts like “race” and “ethnicity”—by nowcommon not only in American academic discourse, but in U.S. society in general—in ananalysis of contemporary Dutch literature. In their contemporary American context, bothconcepts are meant to describe anthropological diversity. “Race” points to biologicaldifferences, while “ethnicity” on the other hand describes cultural differences.Furthermore it is a commonplace to claim that both concepts—in spite of their definitionswhich seem to exclude each other—are often closely intertwined. “Race” is always atleast partially also a cultural construction, while “ethnic” differences were, especially inthe past, were often assumed to have something to do with biological differences.  Niekerk 2 In the Netherlands however, debates surrounding globalization and the increaseddiversity of Dutch society, in particular the influx of immigrants from other parts of Europe and other parts of the world, rarely mention “race” or “ethnicity” explicitly. TheDutch prefer to speak of “minderheden” (“minorities”), “buitenlanders” (“foreigners”),or more recently of “allochtonen” (a concept that is hard to translate, it is the opposite of “autochtonen” with which those born and raised in the Netherlands are meant). All of these concepts, however, leave it open whether we are dealing with biological or culturalnotions of difference. Why is this the case? Could it be that there is a resistance againstthinking through the exact nature of the diversification of Dutch society? There are someindications that this is the case. As in the US, “multiculturalism”—in Dutch“multiculturalisme” or “de multiculturele samenleving” (“multicultural society”)—areexpressions occasionally used in the Netherlands to reflect the effects of an increasedglobalization on Dutch society. However, in my opinion it is questionable whether theterm contributes to an increased reflection of anthropological diversity. Like inGermany, “multiculturalism” is 1. closely associated with the US as a model and not seenas a model for Western European societies, and 2. the term in general has a negativeconnotation.Nevertheless, an increased sense of diversity is clearly a topic in much of contemporary Dutch literature. In order to get a grip on some of the issues sketchedabove, this paper looks at a number of novels by the very prolific young Dutch-Jewishauthor Arnon Grunberg (1971). Grunberg’s first novel,  Blauwe Maandagen (1994)—inthe meanwhile translated into English as  Blue Mondays (1998)  — made him famousinstantaneously. It was an immediate bestseller in the Netherlands, and translation rights  Niekerk 3 were sold to many other countries. Since then Grunberg has published 3 more novels,plays, collections of essays, stories, and poems. Shortly after the success of his firstbook, Grunberg moved to New York. After his move to the US 3 more novels appearedunder his own name (and one more using a pseudonym). In the following, I amparticularly interested in Grunberg’s literary responses to his move to the US; his booksactively attempt to reflect his experiences in the United States. In particular Grunberg’sthird novel,  De heilige Antonio ( Saint Anthonius ), seems to articulate a new beginning asis particularly clear from its opening sentence: “These are the first words we write inEnglish.” I will argue, that there are significant differences between Grunberg’s debutnovel and his later work. These differences are particularly clear if one looks at the issueof racial/ethnic identity.Grunberg’s first novel,  Blue Mondays is the fictional narrative of a high-school-student and then high-school-drop-out named Arnon Grunberg. The first half of the book centers on Grunberg’s chaotic life at home and his relationship with Rosie, his high-school sweetheart and first girlfriend. The second half deals with Grunberg’s life afterdropping out of school and losing contact with Rosie, his unsuccessful career as an officeclerk, and his visits to prostitutes (gradually increasing in frequency), and in the endGrunberg’s decision to become a professional gigolo.The book documents globalization in a very direct way. Grunberg’s family has aGerman background, a relative (aunt) still lives in Berlin, father and son take frequenttrips through Germany. Arnon’s older sister is married and lives in Israel, also the placewhere the father wants to be (and will be) buried. The narrator presents initially an in  Niekerk 4 essence very positive image of the increased globalization of Dutch society and itscitizens. “Globalization” means an attitude of cosmopolitanism and increasedopportunities for tourism (frequent trips to other countries, friends from everywhere)—anattitude that is fostered by contemporary mass culture (rock music, film).Very soon though, “tourism” as a model to understand globalization,internationalization and the issue of ethnic diversity fails. Gradually we hear more aboutthe narrator family’s background. The mother, we learn, has survived Mauthausen andTheresienstadt. The narrator’s Jewish father’s past seems similarly problematic, eventhough we hear fewer details about it. The father’s attitude toward Germany and thingsGerman is, understandably, very ambivalent.The “internationalization” of the fictional family Grunberg is, in other words, clearlynot a voluntary thing. The attitude of the narrator toward his family’s ethnic backgroundand its past is one of straightforward rejection. The narrator eats kosher foods, but, likehis father, only in the presence of his mother. He uses (invented) Jewish holidays as anexcuse to his teachers to skip school. To the question of a prostitute, whether he—i.e.,his Jewish family—“lost many people in the war,” the narrator responds with the answer“not one […], I was born after the war” (138). Such an attitude of rejection is a responseto his personal background, but also fostered by the environment of the narrator. In achapter called “EVEN SHOAH KIJKEN” (“Watching Shoah, briefly”) the narratorrelates how one of his teachers, in an attempt to be sensitive, proposes that he can stayaway from the class session for which the film Shoah is on the program. Grunberg doesindeed visit the specific class session, declares it “boring”(“slaapverwekkend” [90]) andskips the class for good.  Niekerk 5 At times, Grunberg expresses an awareness that one’s racial/ethnic identity is aconstruction. In relation to the above-mentioned prostitute who expresses interest inGrunberg’s Jewish background because she claims to have a Jewish grandfather herself,Grunberg wonders whether this is true or just invented for the occasion (had he beenAmerican, would she have said that her husband had been killed in Vietnam, he wonders[142]). One could argue that Grunberg the author (not the narrator) problematizes hisown (psychological) response to his family’s past, but beyond that also an existingindifference toward the holocaust in Dutch society—an indifference that hides itself behind attempts to work through and understand that part of Dutch-Jewish history. Onecould call this the first major criticism of Dutch society in  Blue Mondays .It is not the only critical stance Grunberg takes. Grunberg’s portrait of Dutch societyis that of a society with a racist underground. While “tourism” functioned initially as amodel, for the narrator, for the positive side of globalization and internationalization atthe beginning of the novel, “international prostitution” develops into a model tounderstand the dark side of the same phenomena. Skin color is the determining factor forthe price and desirability of the respective prostitutes, and the narrator himself participates actively in a discourse linking skin color and exchange value. “All blondgirls are out working, or due to start shortly. But I have a gorgeous little girl for you.Mixed. She is really the most beautiful girl I have.” (148) is a typical response after thenarrator himself has asked for “something European” when contacting an escort service.It is certainly no coincidence that in his encounters with prostitutes the narrator’s ownracial background is explicitly addressed for the first time (133). The above-mentionedprostitute asks the narraor whether he is Jewish, and then tells a story about her own
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