These Are the Names
In the fictional Eastern European border town of Michailopol, a police commissioner with a cruel streak contemplates his ailing health and the arrangement he has with his housekeeper, who once a month lets him in to her bed. Meanwhile, out on the steppes, a small group of illegal immigrants brought together by the promise of a new life beyond the border trudges across the vast plains without food or water.
In These Are the Names, Tommy Wieringa’s new novel – winner of the Libris prize, the “Dutch Booker” – these two bleak Nordic noirish narrative strands develop in alternating chapters, drawing ever closer with an almost allegorical inevitability. Yet, while much of the story remains in this dark vein, These Are the Names is ultimately a novel about redemption and the condolences of faith.
The police commissioner, Pontus Beg, finds himself humming a tune his mother taught him as a child, and when his investigations lead him to a rabbi, he discovers it’s a Jewish love song. This sparks an interest in his own heritage that proves transformative. And while the refugees start to die off on the barren steppes and the few who remain turn on each other, it is a form of faith, no matter how perverse, that keeps them hopeful of survival.
It has been suggested by the publishers that These Are the Names is a novel for fans of Cormac McCarthy, J. M. Coetzee and W. G Sebald. You can see why they have made this claim. Sebald’s Austerlitz, especially, shares many of the same preoccupations. The spectre of Auschwitz hovers over both novels, and in both the possibility of lost Jewish identity lies at the heart of the narrative.
But Wieringa isn’t in the same league as Sebald or Coetzee or McCarthy. His writing has none of the stylistic or formal inventiveness of these writers and he fails, at least in the first half of the novel, to create an atmosphere that fully envelops the reader.
The redemption of Pontus Beg does become more intriguing as the book progresses and as his story entwines with that of the poor souls doggedly heading west, but with too many stereotypes standing in for real people, especially among the refugees – the feisty boy, the silent black man, the hysterical woman – These Are the Names remains for the most part too mythical, too much like a fairytale, to be truly compelling. SH
Scribe, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2015 as "Tommy Wieringa, These Are the Names". Subscribe here.