November 8, 2016
On sale today: These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa
by Melville House
In These Are the Names, on sale today, Dutch superstar Tommy Wieringa weaves together two narratives — a saga of refugees clinging to life as they trudge across Eurasia, and the tale of Pontus Beg, a cop on the steppe investigating the case of a local rabbi who’s been murdered, leaving only one Jew alive in his small border town. As the novel unfolds, rich with Biblical allusions yet pitched on the razor’s edge of the contemporary, these two stories careen toward an explosive confrontation that has Beg reckoning with issues of belonging, identity, and the very possibility of redemption.
In this early passage from the book, we get a glimpse into Beg’s world — his work life, marriage, and desultory existence in the strange town of Michailopol.
At six-thirty, Pontus Beg arose. He stretched as though freeing himself from a headlock.
He ran a washcloth across his face and gargled with mouthwash. In the mirror he saw a stocky man, his chest and shoulders covered in greying hair. He thought about the boy who had swum beside the weir — the smooth, hairless body. The lightness; memories of an other.
The upstairs neighbours’ wastewater hissed through the pipes, rushing like a waterfall when the toilet was flushed. These were only some of the building’s tidal movements. In early October, they had turned the heating on, and the building began to swell; it creaked as hot water sluiced through the pipes with a sigh.
Tucked away behind a pleat in the shower curtain was the glass containing Zita’s upper dentures. Beg could remember her real teeth. With the passing of time they had become stained an ever-darker brown. When she smiled, she would cover her mouth with her hand. She was ashamed of having teeth the colour of tobacco juice, but feared nothing as much as the dentist. Beg had given her money to have her teeth pulled and dentures fitted. She had asked them to put her under for the operation, and lived toothlessly until the new ones were ready.
The dental technician had done a good job: when she smiled, it was as though she’d opened a jewellery box.
I can pay for the teeth, Beg thought, but I can’t make the mouth say what I want.
Zita lived in accordance with the iron regime of women. She worked hard; she stood for no nonsense. The nights with Beg she saw as a continuation of her activities around the house — dusting, sweeping, cooking, washing, ironing, and mending his worn shirts and uniforms. Each of these tasks she fulfilled slowly and attentively; in bed, he sometimes thought he heard her humming.
They benefitted from each other in an easily quantifiable fashion; neither of them felt short-changed in any way. Beg considered the arrangement a perfect marriage; in Zita’s mind, it was an excellent position.
He went into the bedroom, observing the sharp lines around her hollow cheeks. In her sleep, she looked disgruntled. at was the attitude her face assumed in repose, but it said nothing about her character.
He laid a hand on her shoulder and shook her.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ she murmured.
In the kitchen, he ladled soup from the pan and ate it cold. Between spoonfuls he took the occasional bite of dark rye bread. ‘You’re slurping,’ Zita said from the bathroom. ‘You sound like a pig.’
Beg smiled. Yes, it was a good marriage in every way.
When Beg entered the waiting room at police headquarters, two men jumped to their feet. They both began talking excitedly. One of them had run over a sheep that belonged to the other. The second man claimed that the whole herd had already crossed the road when the casualty in question suddenly came traipsing along. ‘A ewe, sir,’ the first one said then, ‘such a lovely animal!’
Running over a sheep, Beg knew, was a complicated business. According to old nomadic custom, you were not only liable for the animal you had killed, but also owed recompense to a number of generations to come — one could say, in other words, that the shepherd had a good day when one of his herd was flattened.
‘You’ve never seen such a lovely little ewe, so broad in the beam,’ the shepherd wailed.
‘That’s enough!’ Beg shouted.
At the information desk, Oksana was playing solitaire on the computer.
‘Where’s Koller?’ Beg asked.
Oksana looked up. ‘His wife called — an abscess in his armpit. She said it kept him awake all night. He’s gone to the doctor.’
‘How many abscesses does the guy have?’ Beg asked in annoyance.
‘That was a fistula. On his behind.’
‘So who’s going to draw up this report?’
Oksana looked over her shoulder at the men in the waiting room. ‘Koller’s actually the one on duty,’ she said.
Beg shook his head. ‘Call Menchov. Get him out of bed.’
He poured himself a cup of tea, then went into his office. The room was warm, and he could smell himself — his own scent, mingled with cigarette smoke. He turned on the computer. The screen did not light up. He pushed the button again, but the thing was dead. He called Oksana. After a little knock on the door, she came in. Her skirt clung to the lines of her lower body; there, where the elastic pressed against flesh, he could see the contours of her underwear. The top buttons of her glossy white blouse were unbuttoned. A person in government service, Beg felt, shouldn’t walk around like that. Maybe in the brothel at the Morris Club, but not at police headquarters.
He stared helplessly at the monitor.
‘Has it stopped working again?’ she asked.
He rolled his chair away from the desk. Oksana squatted down and pushed ‘power.’ Then she stood up and walked around to the far side. ‘Oh, okay,’ she said, ‘that’s not too complicated.’
She held up the plug for him to see. She promised to give the cleaners hell, and stuck the plug back into the socket. The computer sighed, and the monitor blipped on.
Beg longed for his typewriter.
One hour later, Oksana came back to say that neither Koller nor Menchov had showed up. The two men were still in the waiting room.
‘Tell Koller I’ll break both his legs if he doesn’t get down here now. He’s on weekend duty, for Christ’s sake. There’s no reason why he can’t draw up a report with a fistula.’
‘Whatever the hell it is.’
‘I’ll tell him that in so many words.’
Beg opened the office safe. At the bottom of it lay that month’s takings: money in little plastic bags, in envelopes, folded between sheets of paper, held together with paperclips, wrapped in rubber bands; money his men had garnered at roadside from speeders, from those who ignored traffic signals or drove barefooted — driving without shoes on your feet was an obvious violation. First you pulled them over, and then you asked the driver if he wanted to be registered as a traffic offender. That was the signal for the transaction to begin. No one wanted to be registered. Fines were paid on the spot.
Beg counted it all and divided it according to rank and seniority. Before him lay a large pile of banknotes, which he split into many smaller piles. He stuffed the notes into envelopes and wrote the recipients’ names on them. They all came in on the first of the month to pick up their shares.
In this country, he thought, everyone steals from everyone else. And those who don’t steal, beg. Everywhere he looked he saw outstretched hands: no house was built, no service rendered, without the hands intervening, claiming their piece of the transaction. The system was all-embracing, a colossal weave of kickbacks, bribes, extortion, and larceny — whatever else you might choose to call it. As police commander, he found himself somewhere halfway up the ladder: big hands pinched the chunks above him; little hands scrabbled at the crumbs below. Everyone took part. It was an economic system from which everyone profited and under which everyone suffered.
Around noon, he left headquarters and drove to Tina’s Bazooka Bar for lunch. Michailopol: it was his city. Thirty-nine thousand inhabitants, according to the latest census. A border town, it had once been home to a prestigious nuclear-research institute and an ice-hockey team that had been promoted in two consecutive seasons and came within an inch of the national championship. Beg remembered the excitement. At its peak, early in the last century, the city had numbered one hundred and fifty thousand citizens. Michailopol station, with fifteen departures an hour, had been the gateway to the wide world. Now Beg couldn’t even remember where the tracks had been. The steel had been torn up and used to build sheds and fences. The sleepers were chopped into pieces, and disappeared into stoves during the coldest of winters. The Jugendstil station itself was still there, but it had decayed beyond rescue. A mortician stored his coffins in one of the outbuildings.
Michailopol’s demise had been as turbulent as its rise. There had been sixteen churches once—Orthodox and Catholic—and two synagogues as well. The services at the Armenian Orthodox church had attracted boys from far and near, like flies to honey, for there were no prettier girls than the Armenian ones.
Beg recalled the fistfights outside the church — fathers and brothers against the country bumpkins who were after their daughters and sisters.
The Armenian church, too, had disappeared long ago.
He parked in front of Tina’s Bazooka Bar and went in.
‘Pontus, darling,’ Tina said as he settled down at the bar. Ah, Tina Bazooka — sacred icons began to sweat when she was around. She caressed the back of Beg’s hand. Brothel manners never faded.
She had just come back from visiting her son, who lived with his grandmother in the south of the country. Tina put a plate of meatloaf in the microwave and tapped a beer for him. Switching on her mobile phone, she showed him pictures of the boy.
‘Amazing, how fast he’s grown,’ Beg said.
‘Next year he’s coming to live with me.’
Beg slid the phone back across the bar. Heart-shaped plastic charms dangled from its fuzzy fluorescent skin.
‘Sure, why not,’ he said. ‘We have everything here. Schools…’
‘Yeah, and besides that?’ she asked sardonically.
‘A swimming pool.’
‘We used to go swimming there with the girls. But not anymore.’
Beg searched his memory for another facility suitable for children. ‘Valentine Park,’ he said. ‘He can…’
‘Get chased through the woods by a rapist? Ha-ha.’
‘They’ve got a playground.’
‘So he can play soccer,’ Beg said, feeling acquitted.
Tina turned brusquely and walked to the far end of the bar. Beg realised he’d said something wrong, and then remembered—too late, jerk that he was—the boy’s foot. Tina had always blamed the deformity on the nuclear rain; her native village lay next to a notorious testing site. Her attempts to get the boy benefits as a victim of atomic testing had proven fruitless. Even today, outright monsters were being born, mutants; a clubfoot was nothing by comparison. It didn’t help either that the child had been born at Michailopol hospital, and probably conceived at the Morris Club.
Beg ate his meatloaf and drank his beer. He looked at Tina out of the corner of his eye. How did they grow them like that? A heavy gold cross wobbled on her bosom. Tina had left the business; like everyone else at the bar, Beg was consumed by regret.
The joke was one her customers passed on. ‘Take this bread, it is my body,’ Jesus of Nazareth told his disciples at the Last Supper. ‘Take this body, it’s how I earn my bread,’ Tina Bazooka told her customers.
When she opened the bar, most of those customers had followed her. Everyone thought her meatloaf was excellent, but her body would have pleased them a thousand times more.
It took some getting used to at first, but they all did their best.
In fact, Beg thought, the transition had been remarkably serene. No one made a fuss, maybe because they’d all had their piece of her.
These are the Names is on sale now. Buy your copy here or from your neighborhood independent bookstore.