Prejudice rides with the persecuted
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