These Are the Names
A fascinating, dark novel about alienation and migration
‘To discard one’s old soul, that frayed, worn thing, and get a new one in its place. Who wouldn’t want that?’ This is Pontus Beg speaking, the police commissioner of Michailopol, a drab city in the Russian steppes. He is a melancholy cynic, a philosopher who is all too aware of the meaninglessness of life, but when he comes into contact with a group of refugees, his life takes an unexpected turn.
Tommy Wieringa, who garnered international praise with two novels full of vital energy: Joe Speedboat and Caesarion, employs a raw and sober tone in his new novel. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Isaak Babel’s short stories. We follow two parallel storylines: that of the solitary policeman, and that of the refugees on their hopeless quest through a barren and desolate landscape.
The group of refugees are given neither names nor faces. They are taken over a border under false pretences, and told to go west until they reach a city. An internal conflict begins within the group, which flares up as the city fails to appear and their wanderings take longer and longer. Finally the company arrive in Michailopol. The group of refugees look so frail and emaciated, the inhabitants take them for dead people risen up from their graves.
Then the dead body of a rabbi is found in the city. Pontus Beg’s investigations lead him to another rabbi, who initiates him into the laws and history of Judaism. It is clear he will have to abandon some of his cynicism and gradually his loneliness subsides as he comes to realise that he belongs to a people who have been running for their whole lives, the Jews. ‘We’re a braided rope, separate threads which together make a cord. It’s how we are connected. What binds us is what we are.’ The story of the police commissioner investigating the murder of the rabbi ends up merging with that of the refugees. Their story in turn resonates with the book of Exodus: hunger and despair, mystical codes and the power of believing that a higher force will lead them to the promised land.
These Are the Names is a poetic parable about the fate of peoples adrift in the twenty-first century, a story which, despite all its darkness, still seems to offer hope.