I’m sure you’re all well aware that I’m in the midst of reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, but the world of publishing (at times) can be hectic, so it’s no surprise that I already have half an eye on next year’s possibles. Today’s choice is a book which may well be in consideration next time around, a story of two journeys, one literal and one metaphorical, which eventually meet with unexpected consequences. Now doesn’t that sound just like something the IFFP panel might love?
Tommy Wieringa’s These are the Names (translated by Sam Garrett, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) is a novel set on the edge of the vast steppes somewhere in the former Soviet Union. In the run-down town of Michailopol, a long way from the usual centres of civilisation, police officer Pontus Beg goes about his daily life, trying his best to do his duty as well and as honestly as can be expected in a locale built upon petty corruption. At fifty-three, Beg is content with the monthly nocturnal visits from his housekeeper and any additions to his salary he can squeeze from people who foolishly transgress on his watch. However, the memory of a song from his childhood and an encounter with a local religious leader set his life on a slightly different course.
Meanwhile, out on the steppes, a small band of economic migrants is drifting along in search of civilisation. Having been cruelly abandoned by people smugglers (and having seen several of their number fall by the wayside), the remnants of the group are wandering the wastelands, desperate to find some signs of human existence. Life in the open air is harsh and brutal, and not everyone will survive the journey. The question is whether life will be any better when their travels do finally come to an end…
These two strands are the basis of Wieringa’s novel, and they’re both interesting stories in their own right. The reader is treated to sketches of two facets of post-Soviet life, the run-down provincial nest and the plight of refugees, desperate to make it across the border to start a new, better, life. In These are the Names, though, we are constantly aware of the parallel actions, always waiting for the point at which the two stories will inevitably intersect.
Beg is the most prominent figure in the novel, a well-drawn, complex character. A simple man in some ways, he has an interest in Eastern philosophy and a tendency to philosophise himself, particularly when musing about the ravages of impending old age:
“The name is the guest of the thing itself, an old Chinese philosopher had said, and that, more and more, was the way he, Pontus Beg, found himself in relation to his body – he was the guest, and it was the thing itself. And the thing itself was now busy shaking off its guest.”
p.4 (Scribe Publications, 2015)
However, he’s not just a man of thought. His job, naturally, exposes him to the darker side of society, and he can also be violent, laying down the law of the jungle in a place where more civilised measures are doomed to failure.
Beg is a man trying to understand his own nature and history, taking a growing interest in Jewish culture after his talk with the rabbi, the last Jew in town. The more he learns about the faith, and the rituals, the more it all starts to make sense; having always had a sense that something was missing from his life, he is eager to make up for lost time. But with the rabbi being the last of his people in the town, is it all just a little too late?
The arrival of the migrants takes his education from the abstract into reality as his studies of a wandering people are rudely interrupted by the real thing. Once he meets the newcomers, he is sucked into their world, trying to understand the hardship of their journey:
“His life had become bound up with the refugees, with the road they had travelled. They had wandered through the wilderness like the Jews, and like the Jews they had carried the bones of one of their own along with them.” (p.257)
It’s not just an interest in the criminal side of the story that draws Beg in, but also the religious element, the beliefs and superstitions developed on the arduous journey across the steppes. The policeman can’t help but see parallels in the stories he’s reading of Moses and the journey across the desert with the miraculous survival of the handful of stragglers who made it safely into the town. From such things do religions arise…
There’s also a strong political element to the story. Many of the early chapters deal with the origins of the refugees, and while each of their stories is different, there are common themes, the most prominent of which is their desperation to get across the border:
“Countries and continents had once stood open to those seeking their fortunes, borders were soft and permeable, but now they were cast in concrete and hung with barbed wire. Like blind men, travellers by the thousands probed the walls, looking for a weak spot, a gap, a hole through which they might slip. A wave of people crashed against those walls; it was impossible to keep them all back. They came in countless numbers, and each of them lived in the hope and expectation that they would be among the ones lucky enough to reach the far side.” (p.104)
The chances of success are minute, but for the travellers trying and failing is still better than what they left behind (living in a wealthy nation that ships its refugees off to prison camps offshore, I have to wonder how true that is…).
These are the Names is an enjoyable read with short, alternating chapters (from the view of Beg and the travellers) and a palpable air of tension as we wait for the ‘wave’ to break upon the town. With a deceptively casual style, you find yourself surging through the book at a fair rate of knots – it’s definitely to Garrett’s credit that it’s always a smooth read. Which, of course, is not to say that this is all it is. As you can see from the paragraphs above, this is a book which pushes the reader to look into corners they’d rather pretend didn’t exist.
Wieringa’s novel is definitely one to look out for, a book which should please critics and casual readers alike. It’s a story that looks at current social issues and the matter of personal identity, blending them together in a place both recognisable, yet strangely vague. However, we mustn’t forget the idea of names – both the possession and absence of names is a vital part of the book. The reality is, for both Beg and the refugees, without the right name, you’re never going to belong. It’s a good job, then, that even here there are small loopholes for those prepared to journey far enough…