These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa
Whether it's satire or an allegory, this Dutch author's new novel is cleverly done.
It's odd to read a novel that at one and the same time is and is not set in the world of documentary reality. Now in his 40s, the prize-winning Dutch novelist Tommy Wieringa has produced such a novel in These Are The Names. First published in the Netherlands three years ago, where it was critically acclaimed, it now gets an English translation (by Sam Garrett).
Ostensibly, These Are The Names is set in a specific time and place.
We are in Michailopol, a city "east of the Carpathians" in what used to be "the empire of the Bolsheviks". In other words, part of the former Soviet Union, and as rundown and tatty as provincial parts of that old empire really are. Mayor of Michailopol is a gangster called Blok who runs all the black market rackets. Chief police commissioner, and the novel's main character, is Pontus Beg. He is as casually corrupt as cops in such places tend to be. He solicits pay-offs from the gangster mayor. He runs his own racket in extorting fines for traffic infringements. But he's oddly decent and is both aware of, and increasingly critical of, the moral sleaze that surrounds him. With an admirable sense of humour, he does believe in the concept of justice and tries to investigate cases properly.
Meanwhile, out on the steppes, a group of illegal immigrants and refugees, starving and being ripped-off by people smugglers, are moving slowly west in the hope of crossing the border to where Michailopol is. They are a motley bunch. A pregnant woman, a "tall man", a kid called Vitaly who is capable of violence. And trailing behind them, an Ethiopian who is resourceful and who is half feared and half admired by the others.
As it cuts back and forth between Pontus Beg's life in the city, and the illegal immigrants making their painful way across the steppes, These Are The Names could at first be taken for documentary realism. Is it advocacy for deprived refugees? Or is it satire, showing us how desperate the real wretched of the Earth are to get somewhere that most of us would consider pretty undesirable in itself?
When the "vagrants" do at last reach Pontus Beg's jurisdiction, they seem to be involved a murder, and it's Berg's job to solve it.
Yet there's an odd undertone to this novel. If you read carefully, you will see how often Tommy Wieringa mentions derelict or neglected places of worship. Then there's the plot thread that has Pontus Beg trying to verify that he is Jewish and consulting the region's last surviving rabbi to give him a crash course on Judaism. Enter repeated images of the Exodus and it begins to dawn on us that the immigrants trudging painfully across the steppes have more than a little in common with the children of Israel escaping Egypt.
The point is, this apparently realistic novel increasingly takes on the colours of an allegory. Wieringa is really plumbing the existential depths of such questions as: Where does our sense of justice come from? And how do religions begin?
In the end, its tone is like a combination of the Old Testament and the worrying enigmas of Franz Kafka. The fact that it has bursts of humour (jolly or grotesque) also puts it in the camp of Kafka.