Dutch author Grunberg (Silent Extras, 2001, etc.) traces the rise and fall and rise of a literary writer whose sine waves of desperation are ultimately evened out by his unlikely authorship of a cookbook.
The novel takes the form of Robert Mehlman’s “unpublished autobiography,” presented by son Harpo. Seemingly intended as an explanation to his son of the writer’s bizarre behavior over the course of two decades, its main concerns are Mehlman’s love life and the creation of his cookbook. (Asides cover everything from his multiple affairs to book projects both realized and forgotten.) As the narrative begins, the author’s unstable marriage to a psychiatrist he calls the “Fairytale Princess” is disrupted by the arrival of the “Empty Vessel,” a woman who makes cappuccinos at the local coffeebar. Together, the Empty Vessel and Mehlman spend a directionless few days in Atlantic City, gambling away the last of his money even as his credit cards are overdrawn. The affair meanders here and there, with no particular purpose apparent other than to give Mehlman a chance to toss off such continental-sounding epigrams as “hate is the sea into which longing flows down together.” Meanwhile, having agreed to write a “literary cookbook,” he places a newspaper ad looking for contributions. Polish-Jewish Cooking in 69 Recipes becomes an international sensation, earning Mehlman all the money he’ll ever need. The volume is hailed as a monument of reconciliation between Germans and Jews that will allow both to “keep the home fires burning after Auschwitz”— a mildly tasteless jape typical of the gauzy brand of humor peddled here. The text seems ably translated, if only because it’s difficult to imagine a rendering more apt to the original that might have restored such a desultory work to any kind of greatness.
Hard to believe this listless, modestly amusing tale won the Netherlands’ prestigious AKO Prize.