And His Name Is

Marjolijn van Heemstra has a conversation with her partner about what to name their child. She’s pregnant and, as the chapter title explains, still has 27 weeks to go. Her partner tells her that a name always fits in the end, like a leather shoe that takes on the shape of the foot. Marjolijn thinks it’s the other way round: ‘You grow into your name. The name is the foot.’

Original title
En we noemen hem
Marjolijn van Heemstra

Van Heemstra had a legendary uncle, known to his relatives as ‘Cousin Bomber’. As the story went, he fought against the Nazis in the Dutch Resistance, and some six months after the war ended, he had a bomb delivered to a former collaborator on St. Nicholas Eve, the fifth of December, when children are traditionally given presents. Many years later, on his deathbed, the same uncle sent a very different package to Marjolijn’s grandmother: his ring, with instructions to give it to the first child in the family to bear his name. Surprised by her own decisiveness, Marjolijn says their child should be named after her uncle.

The decision introduces the question of how history echoes into the future. When she starts to ask around, none of her relatives seem to know the details. As the bulge in her belly grows, she delves deep into the archives. Time and again, the myth of Cousin Bomber is debunked. First, it proves controversial whether his victim ever worked with the Nazis. There is no hard evidence.

Marjolijn keeps running up against a fundamental truth: history is no more than an assortment of people muddling their way forward, all without any clear notion of how things will turn out. She learns what Cousin Bomber never wanted to know, about that St. Nicholas Eve. The whole family leaned in as Father unwrapped the unexpected gift. The autopsy report makes the incident all the more gruesome: the explosion killed not only the suspected collaborator, but also his wife and their maid, aged seventeen.

Marjolijn continues her search, trying to pierce the veil of half-truths. The book also has a second storyline: her pregnancy. As the chapter titles count down, the complications mount. This subplot provides a deadline for her investigation, and perhaps also opens a door onto the central theme: life goes on, as messy as ever, and anything that too closely resembles a neatly wrapped-up story is, in fact, little more than coincidence.

Towards the end, the tension between the all-too-human urge to cover up evil and our longing for the honest truth becomes increasingly palpable. That is the true masterstroke of 'And His Name Is', making it not just a fascinating non-fiction book about the complex nature of heroism in wartime, but also an urgent work of literature about our relationship to the Second World War in particular, and to the past in general.

NRC Next

A stirring, electrifying story, packed with keen observations about myth and narrative.

Marjolijn van Heemstra
Poet, novelist, and playwright Marjolijn van Heemstra (b. 1981) holds a master’s degree in religion. Her first poetry collection, 'If Moses Had Gone On Questioning' (2009) won the Jo Peters Poetry Prize. She debuted as a novelist with 'The Last of the Aedemas' (2012).
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