It never ceases to amaze me that every so often you come across a cultural product (in this case, a writer) you’ve never heard of, but that’s (who’s) immensely popular and bestselling in another country.
Tommy Wieringa is an award-winning Dutch writer. He’s published many books to critical and award claim, and the book most recently released in Australia, These Are The Names, won Holland’s Libris prize. That’s the Dutch equivalent of the Booker.
That prize hints at the style of book These Are The Names is: challenging; containing characters and storylines that aren’t entirely likeable but that illuminate some key human and cultural lessons. So, an arduous read, but one that’s worthily enlightening.
These Are The Names contains a motley assemblage of characters. Pontus Beg is an ageing policeman chasing the skirts of his cleaning lady and taking stock of his life—past and present. He has not, as the first line of the book tells us, become the wise, calm old man he’d envisaged. One of his feet is perpetually cold. Life and routine and alienation from family have worn him down. His family history is something of a mystery.
Beg lives in a border town on the steppe. It’s unclear which country this steppe occurs in—perhaps deliberately, or perhaps because I’m obtuse and couldn’t figure it out. Regardless, it’s a bleak, harsh town reflected in the landscape.
Concurrent to Beg’s story is that of a group of refugees attempting to cross the border to a better life. Thrown together through tense circumstance, they find themselves on a relentless, wrenching march across the steppe. They are starving, distrustful of each other, unsure if they’re going to survive.
Their and Beg’s worlds collide when the group eventually makes it to the town, at which point Beg’s task is to discover their names, their stories, and to solve a related murder. Which is a difficult task, for they have ‘become people without a history, living only in an immediate present’. They’re also ‘dead people’, one tells Beg. ‘You have no idea how often we fell asleep in the certainty that there would be no tomorrow…You can’t get to us.’
These Are The Names tackles some big themes: religion, family origins, identity, asylum, hope, and despair. It’s an unflinching look at flawed humans, the choices they make, the repercussions of those choices, and whether redemption can be had.
Each character is complex and troubled in their own ways, and the journey immensely difficult, which Wieringa wrings out through exquisite turns of phrase. For example:
A thirst that drowned out all thought, thirst that tempted you with cool ponds, that conjured up the sound of dripping faucets. They wept for rain. Every word they spoke tasted of rusty iron. The child, a boy, pinched the skin on his forearm and pulled. The puckered skin rose up and remained in place, like a crease in a sheet of paper.
The dreams with which each of them had left home had gradually wilted and died off. Their dreams differed in size and weight, and remained alive in some longer than others, but in the end they had almost all disappeared. The sun had pulverised them; the rain had washed them away.
While I can’t say I enjoyed These Are The Names per say, nor can I say it’s the point. As with any Booker-style book, it’s designed to test and incrementally shift our perceptions of the world. Wieringa’s book has haunted me, which is a sign its themes resonate off the page. Most particularly, it’s made me wonder what I would do in desperate circumstances, whether as a refugee or as someone ageing and feeling increasingly obsolete and out of place.
Wieringa will be in the country shortly, but crazy work and life curveballs will prevent me from hearing him speak. My goal is now to track down some podcasts and interviews to learn more about him and his oeuvre.
For although I didn’t know about him prior to Scribe giving me the opportunity to review this book, now that I do, I’ll be seeking Wieringa’s work out.