It was not the first time I had seen Arnon Grunberg in Athens. The previous time, though, it was not actually the writer himself, but someone that looked a lot like him and was sitting opposite me in a half-empty subway train.
Few book lovers will openly admit this, but shortly crossing paths with your favorite writers -even the ones deceased long ago, is one of the side effects you have to get used to if reading books is your favorite passtime.
For such a meeting with a favorite writer to occur, it is not necessary to have seen his picture first, as everyone claiming to have once seen Pynchon will assure you.
Grunberg’s case, however, is different: extensively photographed, with continuous presence in literature events, television shows etc., he keeps on transmitting his coordinates via his frequent reports and columns in Dutch -but not only- newspapers as well as his blog, which is updated on a daily basis, from wherever in the world he happens to be.
This year, our paths have crossed each other’s many times. I am not only referring to that time when I saw him in the Athens metro (or saw his lookalike if you prefer, even though this is a detail not so important at this point). At the year of my life during which I have traveled more than any other, it was as if Grunberg was following my path – or I his.
The scenery: Munich, Thessaloniki, Amsterdam. But, as if in a good roman, it was not so easy to actually meet each other. The moment, i.e., that I was landing in an airport, Grunberg was posting the adventures of his departure from there. One night that I was sure I would bump into him in the streets of a town he was staying that month, he was meeting his readers in a suburb which I had never heard before.
The night of the 10th of December 2013, however, the time has come for the first actual encounter which, as in a good roman, was meant to take place in Athens. You see, all the years that I had been living in the Netherlands, Grunberg was not my favorite author yet.
When I reached the Ilisia theater, where the official premiere of the play Tirza would take place (based on his book with the same name), quite some people had already gathered in the small foyer and the entrance. I first saw the Dutch ambassador arriving, which was not so difficult given his height. It took me a while, though, to spot Grunberg standing next to him. He was shorter than I expected and the fact that he was standing next to the tall ambassador, intesified the initial impression.
Grunberg was chatting with this company, hands in the pocket of a suit which would fit more an unofficial soirée at a mansion garden than the first really cold evening of this year’s winter. If you had never seen a picture of him, if you did not know who he was, you would never guess that this man was the honorable guest of the evening.
I like artists that enter through the front entrance along with their audience, I thought, while focusing on the writer, his movements and the movements of the people around him. My thoughts were interrupted by a book that suddenly appeared in front of my eyes.
It was a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was put clumsily in front of my face by a restless young man with scared eyes. “I sell books for a living” he kept on repeating. Before I managed to react, he went on to the next potential buyer.
It happened to be the ambassador. For a second, Dickinson’s book was in the air, between him and Grunberg, but before any of them realized it, another man made sure the book seller went away.
I remembered that one of the reasons Grunberg was in Athens, is a reportage on the country and its crisis which he is preparing, similar to the one he had carried out in Thessaloniki for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant.
How clear a picture of the crisis in Greece will Grunberg form if we protect him from those who are forced to sell books to theater queues in order to survive?
The time was there for the public to enter the theater, Grunberg coming along with mister ambassador (or mister ambassador coming along with Grunberg, as the protocol most probably prescribes). I could write a lot about the discussion and the play that followed, but these are not my current points of attention.
My subject is that of a reader meeting her favorite writer, a meeting which on the one hand is never meant to be and on the other to repeat itself continuously, since no serious reader has one and only one favorite writer.
Last Tuesday, however, my favorite writer was Grunberg. My seat on the very left of the second row, had the disadvantage of not having the best view of the stage, a result of me neither booking early enough nor having an invitation. That night, the majority of the public was invited for the premiere. My seat, however, had the advantage of a perfect view of Grunberg himself.
The hypertextuality and self-referrring element of the evening was exactly what I was in search for. The writer speaks about his work; the writer watches his work in a language he does not understand; the reader watches the work which she has already read in two languages, at the same time tracing the routes of past and future readings of the novel; the Dutch ones among the audience seeing something else than the Greeks, the person sitting next to me seeing something else than me and altogether realizing once more that the biggest enemy of our deeper loneliness, is staying in the proximity of pieces of art.
When the play was over, Grunberg remained sitting in his seat while people were slowly leaving the theater hall.
“It would never actually be the perfect moment for something like this, this is why I dare do it now”, I say using my best Dutch, bending next to him.
He politely signs the two books which were touring around Attica the whole day, waiting patiently for this moment. In the past, they had also been waiting in not few airports and train stations of more than three countries.
I thank him and leave. When I reach home, I look at the signings on the books with the perverse pride which only a bookworm would understand. Soon afterwards, though, a doubt creeps in. I know it’s irrational, but I cannot stop it.
Is it possible that the person I saw back then in the metro was the real Grunberg and the person I saw tonight is simply one of his clones that travel around the world, one that knows exactly which jokes to say during a reading and who forges perfectly the writer’s signature? How can it be possible that this tiny man under the name of Grunberg is always everywhere while at the same time never ceases writing?
It could actually be the twist of a more or less good roman – depending who would write it.
Besides -and this is not to my vivid imagination, Grunberg is the writer who has made an art of being the lookalike and sometimes the stuntman of himself. He lets his books go their own way in translations, theater or cinema adaptations while he restlessly ensures that his own life keeps on writing its own self-referring roman. But even this one, he writes well, in his unique grunbergian way.
Shortly before the day is over, I read with delay a message on internet:
It’s the 10th of December, the date Emily Dickinson was born.