Prej­u­dice rides with the per­se­cuted

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Gre­gory Day

Th­ese are the Names By Tommy Wieringa Trans­lated by Sam Gar­rett Scribe, 320pp, $29.99 For the past decade Dutch nov­el­ist Tommy Wieringa has con­sis­tently ex­plored so­ci­ety’s dys­func­tion­al­ity, through pre­sent­ing the world from the view­point of marginalised char­ac­ters and by jux­ta­pos­ing the main­stream with more idio­syn­cratic el­e­ments.

His 2005 novel Joe Speed­boat, for in­stance, was nar­rated by a char­ac­ter whose writ­ing arm was just about his only func­tion­ing limb fol­low­ing a child­hood ac­ci­dent. Sim­i­larly, his dis­tinc­tive novel Cae­sar­ion, short­listed for the Dublin Im­pac Award in 2013, in­te­grated a ram­pantly colour­ful sce­nario — a peri­patetic pi­ano player try­ing to ‘‘save’’ his porn god­dess mother — into a mean­ing­ful ex­plo­ration of the pros and cons of present ver­sus ab­sent parent­age.

Wieringa’s new novel, Th­ese are the Names, is set in the haunted fic­tional town of Michailopol, some­where on the Rus­sian steppe. Again Wieringa has pre­sented us with an ex­treme yet be­liev­able sce­nario, though this time the tawdry post-trau­matic at­mos­phere of Michailopol is syn­ony­mous with the blood of the per­se­cuted. In World War II up to 200,000 pris­on­ers, mostly Jews, were ex­e­cuted there. By 1943 the Ger­mans had opened the mass graves so as to burn the bod­ies and de­stroy the ev­i­dence. The fires burned for months. A Soviet sci­en­tific anal­y­sis af­ter the war re­ported that the soil sub­strate was ‘‘sat­u­rated with the juice from corpses and melted hu­man fat’’.

Of course Wieringa need hardly to have ex­er­cised his imag­i­na­tion in con­jur­ing up this fic­tional night­mare. Such atroc­i­ties are the stuff of re­cent hu­man his­tory. What he has been able to imag­ine in this novel, how­ever, are some of the on­go­ing con­se­quences of th­ese bru­tal­i­ties. In a town such as Michailopol there is ‘‘no such thing as a re­spect­ful nod to the past’’. It is a place un­der­scored by con­di­tion­al­ity and hard­ness, also an acidic prag­ma­tism wherein in­di­vid­ual rights are at best some kind of luxury. The search for be­long­ing or for one’s iden­tity can never be a sim­ple mat­ter and is cer­tainly not to be con­fused with en­ti­tle­ment, let alone the pos­si­bil­ity of ab­so­lu­tion.

The pro­tag­o­nist of Th­ese are the Names acts as a con­duit for an ex­plo­ration of th­ese is­sues. Pon­tus Beg is the po­lice com­mis­sioner of Michailopol, a melan­cholic, even wist­ful man with an age­ing body and a rather pi­caresque comic streak rem­i­nis­cent not only of Wieringa’s pre­vi­ous work but also of An­drea Camil­leri’s Com­mis­sario Mon­tal­bano nov­els with their roots in Si­menon’s In­spec­tor Mai­gret.

We re­late to Beg not solely be­cause of his charm but be­cause of how his quo­tid­ian qual­i­ties con­tra­dict with the vi­o­lent prag­ma­tism re­quired in his job. As the novel moves through chap­ters al­ter­nat­ing be­tween his un­fore­seen dis­cov­ery of the Jewish iden­tity with­held from him by his mother, and a group of starv­ing refugees mak­ing their way across the waste­land of the steppe to­wards Michailopol, we come to un­der­stand that, de­spite its whim­si­cal mo­ments, Th­ese are the Names is in­tent on ex­plor- ing life’s big­gest ques­tions. The refugees’ jour­ney is a fright­en­ing one, in which star­va­tion and de­spair lead to the per­se­cu­tion and even­tual be­head­ing of their only black-skinned mem­ber, an Ethiopian Chris­tian, who they con­clude, in the bar­baric di­a­bolism of their plight, to be su­per­nat­u­rally evil. Thus Wieringa demon­strates how the bigotry of suf­fer­ing can be as de­struc­tive as the hubris of power. Through this por­trait of this mod­ern-day Ex­o­dus he clev­erly shows how ex­treme per­se­cu­tion of­ten begets myth­i­cal nar­ra­tives as a way of order­ing the in­ex­pli­ca­ble, and how such myths, if they be­come the bedrock of cul­tures, pro­vide the ideal con­di­tions for op­pres­sion.

As the refugees reach Michailopol they in­ter­lock with the world of Beg. It is dis­cov­ered that they are trav­el­ling with the Ethiopian’s sev­ered head, a grue­some relic of sac­ri­fice and sal­va­tion. This not only turns their plight into a crime scene de­mand­ing Beg’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion but, more im­por­tant, dove­tails his per­sonal dis­cov­ery of the sense of ‘‘di­vine place’’ in the To­rah with the living re­al­i­ties of con­tem­po­rary cul­tural dis­place­ment and peo­ple-smug­gling.

Un­for­tu­nately this am­bi­tious novel is marred in this English ver­sion by er­rors in an oth­er­wise fluid trans­la­tion. We find a ‘‘fi­ancee’’ wait­ing for her boyfriend to pro­pose to her, a bus driver is la­belled a ‘‘chauf­feur’’, a lo­cal priest is a ‘‘pope’’, and a mal­nour­ished boy’s wrists are as ‘‘thick as sticks’’. The list goes on.

Such clangers break the es­sen­tially il­lu­sory art of the novel, as do the text’s many ty­po­graph­i­cal er­rors, which come as even more of a sur­prise given the aes­thetic care taken with the book’s hand­some de­sign. It is to be hoped that if there are sub­se­quent edi­tions of Th­ese are the Names there will be no such im­ped­i­ments to the reader’s en­joy­ment of Wieringa’s strange and thought-pro­vok­ing tale.

Dutch nov­el­ist Tommy Wieringa

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