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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Onze oom

Arnon Grunberg

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Title: Onze oom
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 640 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Notre oncle - France
Mitgenommen - Deutschland
  • Onze oom has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

A : very effective novel of characters' inexorable advance to their destinies

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NRC Boeken . 29/9/2008 Yra van Dijk
Vrij Nederland . 23/9/2008 Jeroen Vullings

  From the Reviews:
  • "Zo is Onze oom in alles een Grunbergroman. Het draait om personages van wie je denkt dat ze niets meer te verliezen hebben, tot er aan het einde van het verhaal nóg meer te verliezen blijkt. (...) Dat is wat de schrijver hier ook doet, zo dichtbij mogelijk komen: oog in oog met het gevaar toont de mens immers zijn ware aard. Dat maakt Onze oom de meest onontkoombare roman die Grunberg tot nog toe schreef." - Yra van Dijk, NRC Boeken

  • "Ook laat hij zich in Onze oom kennen als een in-serieuze schrijver, meer nog dan in De asielzoeker en Tirza. Nu was zijn inzet altijd al serieus -- ik doel op de verspreiding van zijn inktzwarte, nihilistische wereldbeeld. Maar het over-the-top-element, het grote geschmier, de absurde zijsprongen die tot krankjorume bijverhalen leidden -- zijn handelsmerk tot en met De joodse messias -- heeft plaats moeten maken voor snijdende versobering, voor (overwegend) conventioneel vertellen. Humor is nog steeds aanwezig, maar onnadrukkelijker -- en pijnlijker." - Jeroen Vullings, Vrij Nederland

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Onze oom -- 'Our uncle' -- is set in an unnamed South American country with a large indigenous population, a repressive government with only a tenuous hold on much of the country, and an out-of-control (but not particularly competent) military -- a more extreme version of, say, Peru or Bolivia at their worst in recent decades. It begins with a botched military action, as a Major Anthony is charged with arresting suspected subversives, a man and his wife. The mid-night raid on the family home goes wrong when a trigger-happy underling shoots them as the man reaches for his glasses when they are woken up. The soldiers look for some incriminating evidence in the house -- but, of course, there's none; what Major Anthony stumbles across instead is a young girl no one had warned them about, the couple's child. There's no way to clean up the mess they've made -- not that it really matters: the military seems to specialize in creating such messes, and the fact that there will be collateral damage seems to be taken for granted -- but Major Antony decides that he'll at least take responsibility for part of it, scooping up the girl and taking her home so that she won't become part of the system.
       Major Anthony does have an ulterior motive: he's been unable to get his wife, Paloma, pregnant and she longs for a child (the swimming pool the Major had built is nice, but not quite a satisfactory substitute). When he wakes Paloma up in the morning and presents her with the kid the reaction is, however, not what he was expecting or hoping for. Completely self-absorbed Paloma has her own ideas and they definitely do not include suddenly being mom to some dubious kid her husband picked up somewhere -- as she lets both the Major and the child know.
       The child is named Lina; she appears to be about eight or so, though her exact age is never specified. She doesn't really understand what's going on -- or what happened. She just keeps asking after her parents, and wants to go home. Major Anthony tries to explain that that won't be possible, but has a hard time conveying anything to the young girl -- especially the new situation as he imagines it, she as his daughter. The fact that Paloma has no interest whatsoever in the brat doesn't help.
       Major Anthony and Lina are an odd pair. Both struggle, mostly silently: they have specific goals, but their destinies seem pre-determined and inescapable (helped along by the actions of other people), and they don't get where and what they strive for. The Major is a dutiful military-man: he obeys orders and does his job, and does not concern himself with what playing this role means in the larger political-societal context. He's not particularly liked in the military, however, where he doesn't really fit in. He means well for Lina, too, but he's simply not equipped to manage that -- and certainly not helped by his wife, who wants to give the child to the housekeeper or dispose of her in some such manner. Lina, meanwhile, follows the adults' leads, hoping eventually to be reunited with her parents.
       Major Anthony takes some initiative at work when he makes the case for the army going to save a stranded outpost in the far reaches of the country, but the previous convoys that had gone there hadn't reached their destination and the military is perfectly willing to leave even its own to their fates; sacrifices must be made (and if it's the sacrifice of others -- as it always is under this regime --, so be it). Major Anthony thinks this is unacceptable -- showing again why he's exactly the wrong sort of dutiful military man for this corrupt-man's army. His superior is willing to send a convoy to save the men (well, to send a convoy -- he has little interest in or intention of having the men saved) -- if Major Anthony leads it. Again, there are ulterior motives at play: the superior is having an affair with Paloma, for one. And this is a convenient way of getting rid of Major Anthony -- a suicide mission that's then designed to be even more suicidal, as even Major Anthony realizes when he sees the bunch of losers he's given command of to undertake the mission, exactly the sort of men the military is perfectly willing (or even eager) to lose. Yet Major Anthony is so dutiful that he still goes ahead, even though he hasn't been given nearly enough men or supplies, and even though he knows any chance of success is minimal.
       Things do not go well, and it doesn't take long before even his troops demand they turn back and are set to mutiny. Out in these backlands the government has no influence or role any longer -- though it is more desolation than lawlessness that defines this part of the country. But Major Anthony knows what he has to do and he continues doing it; of course, the forces he faces are overwhelming -- that force being fate; the physical forces aren't all that impressive, but that doesn't matter -- and he doesn't stand a chance. Eventually, he's literally consigned to oblivion, and even as he is he knows he couldn't have acted otherwise (and remains just ever so slightly baffled how things turned out).
       Lina, too, knows what she has to do. With Paloma showing no interest in the child's welfare and the Major gone she picks up her bucket and decides to go home. That, too, can't work out well -- but when she finally realizes that, confronted with the new reality, she adjusts and accepts a new destination as her goal. Eventually she winds up pretty much where the Major did, in pretty much the same oblivion; eventually she even finds confirmation of her state, a list in the newspaper of the dead that includes not only her parents' names but also her own.
       Lina spends several years in this remote part of the country; eventually fate puts her together with the 'Dirigent' (conductor) -- what amounts to the rebel leader -- and, though still a child herself, she bears his child. Fate, however, cannot be escaped: the child -- a new life, representing also an opportunity at life again for Lina -- has his own destiny.
       Much of Onze oom is almost literally plodding, the characters -- Major Anthony and Lina, in particular -- slowly advancing, going on their quests (or, in Lina's case, repeatedly diverted by someone from her path), on foot or in the military convoy. Grunberg does this expertly: despite the deliberate pace, much of the novel is incredibly tense. One fears for Lina as the young girl makes her way through the big city, for example, but Grunberg carefully holds the tension without forcing the action: he doesn't need gunshots or assaults to keep readers in suspense. The true terror here is the terror of the militarized and corrupt state and the uncertainty that comes with life under it: after the horrific opening scene, of the slaughter of Lina's parents, there is little actual violence. When death comes -- as it does for many of the characters -- it is either very quiet (admittedly horribly so in the one case) or off-scene. But the dull ache of terror, of the possibility of acts of violence and violation, is a constant in the narrative.
       Both Major Anthony and Lina have set conceptions of the world, and try to act accordingly. Major Anthony tries to create his own reality: by bringing Lina home with him he thinks he can instantly create a family; Paloma's reactions -- so shocking in its callousness that it's almost funny -- should disabuse him of the idea, but he can't let go of it and he continues to try to shape reality so that it will be true to his vision -- not realizing that reality is much stronger than he is. Lina clings for a while to her old world, imagining all she has to do is get back home to be reunited with her parents and continue life as before; only when confronted with the changed reality (Grunberg does let her make it home, but, of course, it's not what she expected) does she adjust. In the countryside she finds her 'god', the local talismanic figure (and the 'uncle' of the title) in the mine where she also works for several years, but it is only a temporary hold.
       Much of this long novel follows its characters' paths in painstaking detail -- right down to the bag of home-baked pastry the Major brings along on his mission, or Lina's bucket --; when late on the book jumps ahead some three years it comes as a shock that such a chunk of the life of a character whose life has been shared so intimately is just glossed over. Grunberg is at his best in that close detail, maintaining just the right amount of tension as he leads his characters on; whether their fates are clear (it's pretty obvious how things are going to work out for Major Anthony) or seem entirely open (the possibilities of what might happen to Lina change constantly over much of the novel) their stories remain compelling. Only when he jumps ahead does the novel lose some of its momentum, and the (short) concluding section, showing the fate Grunberg has settled on for Lina, seems a bit too pat and simple. But overall, this is a masterful narrative.
       The state of the state, a country corrupted to its core and hardly functioning -- except where the government has no more hold or say --, is presented very well. Grunberg doesn't dwell at length on how bad things are -- only one speech by the Major's superior reveals details of how bad things have gotten -- but the incidental descriptions make everything clear. Similarly, the countryside beyond the state's reach is no idyll -- and here too characters live out however they are fated to.
       With the occasional surprise -- Paloma's fate, for example -- Grunberg manages to throw in some unexpected twists, but what makes the novel remarkable is in its steady, deliberate and almost uneventful progress: the slow crushing of Major Anthony, who tries to follow the rules and expectations and can't do otherwise, even when he sees that the world around him functions completely differently, and Lina's stubborn, goal-oriented certainty.
       Supremely and devastatingly melancholy, yet also with some flashes (if only flashes ...) of hope (unlike in De asielzoeker), and with two superb character-portraits (Major Anthony and Lina), Onze oom is a major work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2011

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Onze oom: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

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