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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

De asielzoeker

Arnon Grunberg

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Title: De asielzoeker
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 352 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: L'oiseau est malade - France
Der Vogel ist Krank - Deutschland
Il rifugiato - Italia
El refugiado - España
  • De asielzoeker has not yet been translated into English
  • Awarded the AKO Literatuurprijs, 2004

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, but despite the humor relentlessly downbeat (and its morose protagonist hard to take)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz A 10/7/2005 Jan Brandt
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 15/10/2005 Beatrice Eichmann-Leutenegger
Die Zeit . 6/4/2006 Bernardette Conrad

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mit diesen vier Worten beginnt der gleichnamige, großartige Roman von Arnon Grünberg. Sie geben den Ton und das Thema vor und verweisen auf die Schrecken der nächsten 496 Seiten. Auf den Verfall, das Ende einer Beziehung und die poetische Kraft, die Grünbergs schlichte Prosa entfaltet. Nur auf eins verweisen sie nicht: auf den slapstickartigen Humor und die üblen Überraschungen, die auf jeder Seite lauern." - Jan Brandt, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Arnon Grünbergs Figuren und Handlungskonstruktionen kommen immer psychologisch hoch aufgeladen daher -- das ist ihr Markenzeichen und sicher ein Grund für ihre literarische Anziehungskraft. Nur -- dafür, dass so viel Psycho dabei ist, fehlt dann doch die Psychologie." - Bernardette Conrad, Die Zeit

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:

       De asielzoeker ('The Asylum Seeker') begins with Christian Beck being told: "De vogel is ziek" ('The bird is sick'). It's 'the bird' herself who tells this to Beck. She is his woman, the one he's spent many years with already -- essentially his common-law wife -- and now she's sick. Terminally ill, in fact, which second opinions confirm: there's nothing to be done, she's a goner.
       Beck aims, in his own way, to please, and wants to at least accommodate her last wishes. One of them is that she wants to get married -- except that it turns out it's not Beck she wants to marry. Rather, she has her heart set on an Algerian asylum seeker. But accomodating Beck is willing to go along with that .....
       Despite the title, the central figure of the novel is not the asylum seeker (nor the dying and then dead birdie) but rather Beck, and De asielzoeker is a character-study of this man who, out of principle (as he says), has no illusions. He's dashed them all, and doesn't dare make any more demands of the world or anyone in it. Born in Amsterdam, he lives with his birdie in the German city of Göttingen. He translates instruction manuals -- a job he's good at --, having abandoned his literary ambitions years earlier. Before Göttingen they lived in the Israeli city of Eilat for a while; the birdie is a researcher, and she worked there before the opportunity in Göttingen arose.
       After the dying birdie marries, her asylum-seeker-husband comes to live with them. Beck thinks it's the easiest thing for him to come home with them after the ceremony, and then for the new couple to share the bed for their wedding-night (while he sleeps in some corner), and then for the asylum seeker to stay a while longer. They are hardly ideal living arrangements, but somehow work.
       One reason the birdie wanted to marry was to have some intimacy again. Despite living practically as man and wife for so long, and sharing a bed, Beck hasn't had sex with her in years. Not that he doesn't have sex -- he still frequents the occasional prostitute -- but he hasn't made love to her in ages. He has no good explanation why he's not fulfilled that role -- but then the morose Beck hasn't fulfilled many roles in quite a while: he's one of life's great bystanders, and even as he makes arrangements and decides on things, from their new living arrangements to how to fulfill the birdie's other dying wishes, he's somehow always left by the wayside.
       There's an outing to a goat farm, since the birdie expresses a desire to learn how to make goat-cheese, and a few other minor episodes, but basically not much happens to this odd threesome. The birdie gets sicker, and eventually the birdie dies. The asylum seeker sticks around for a while but then heads home to fight for freedom for his people (he's a Berber), and Beck is left all by his lonesome.
       The novel also has lengthy flashback scenes to Beck's time in Eilat. While the birdie was off doing her research (and already occasionally tempted to take someone else in), Beck whiled away much of his time in a local bordello. It was around the time of the Gulf War (1990-1), with the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel a constant concern. There, Beck is also moved to a brutal act at one point -- but it turns out to be one with no personal consequences: the police interrogate him, but let him go -- and even when he tries to get them to act, since justice demands some sort of punishment for him, they can't be bothered. Clearly this, too, weighs on Beck in the years that follow.
       Finally, there are also his literary ambitions, which come back to haunt him. He's long forsaken writing, but early on he agrees to allow one of his old stories to be published (thinking the money from it would allow them to buy an air conditioner -- though by the time it comes it's cooled down again and they don't need one, typical of the futility of any of Beck's actions). The story is called 'De kinderen van Yab Yum' ('The children of Yab Yum') and describes an attack on Amsterdam's best-known brothel. [The Yab Yum was a famous (and notorious) 'high-class' bordello, but it was shut in 2008; see also the official site.] After the birdie's death, Beck gains a bit of notoriety with the story. He tries to explain himself, but as usual finds the world functions on a completely different plane than he does. Eventually, too, his attitude catches up with him completely, as the enormity of his life's failures (and of the failure of the approach to life he's taken) finally dawns on (and crushes) him.
       There's comedy throughout De asielzoeker, but Beck is such a sad sack and the story so relentlessly downbeat that the laughter leavens little. Grunberg's does deadpan absurdity very well, but the novel is still terribly grim (and that at considerable length, too). With its lessons conveyed with sledgehammer-force and obviousness, relentlessly pounded in in the form of this ultra-glum protagonist, it can be wearisome. Yes, its an accomplished work, in its own peculiar way, but it's hard to truly recommend.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2010

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De asielzoeker: 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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