Sometimes a book finds its way into your hands and you never quite know what to make of it. Dutch author Tommy Wieringa’s These are the Names is devastating and evocative despite – or perhaps because of – its eerily sparse writing. The novel’s dual narratives concern Pontus Beg, an aging police commissioner in the fictitious Eastern European town of Michailopol, and a group of desperate refugees as they traverse unforgiving steppes.
The depth of religious symbolism in the novel was likely lost on me. Beg’s exploration of his newfound Jewishness lacked the impact of the stragglers’ biblical turmoil. The citizens of Michailopol cite memories of concentration camps and war yet retain their abhorrence of the refugees. There is a haunting moment in which one of the survivors of the wilderness is stripped and shorn – as though being processed for a camp, “the deep depression in the pelvis, like a bowl.”
A significant criticism to acknowledge is Weiringa’s offhand treatment of women. They represent little more than objects, with events happening to them. In one scene: “the man from Ashkhabad took the woman… she didn’t even scream once”.
Wieringa’s Michailopol is wonderfully obscure, a post-communist city standing in for a number of potential towns in which concerns of country and citizenship loom large. It is a place where once “borders were soft and permeable, but now they were cast in concrete… a wave of people crashed against those walls.” It is in this harsh landscape that the refugees arrive, and the horror of their journey emerges.
A vivid and relevant story.