Posts Tagged ‘blessed rita’

The Blessed Rita

May 10, 2020

I first encountered Tommy Wieringa’s work when The Death of Murat Idrissi was long-listed for the International Booker Prize last year (or Man Booker as it was then), and subsequently read his previous novel, A Beautiful Young Wife. Both are short (one might even claim novella status for them) and succinct, giving the impression of originating from a single ‘what if?’ scenario. The Blessed Rita (translated once again by Sam Garrett), on the other hand, is longer than the two previous novels combined, though its focus is far from wide-angled: set in a small village, its central character, Paul Kruzan, lives an insular and repetitive life, and worries that his horizons are in danger of narrowing further.

Paul lives with his elderly father, Alois, in an isolated farm cottage. He is no longer a farmer, but makes a living selling militaria, an occupation that began fortuitously when he finds he can acquire old uniforms and paraphernalia cheaply when the Iron Curtain is parted and travel to eastern Europe is possible. It has a perhaps deeper origin in a key moment from his childhood when a Russian pilot, attempting to escape the USSR, crash lands in his father’s fields. The pilot, Anton Rubin, ends up recuperating in their farmhouse after he leaves hospital, alongside Paul, Alois and his mother, Alice:

“It would have taken a heart of stone and a heap of bad manners to send a fallen hero packing, so Alice agreed to let them role him into the house.”

Unfortunately for Paul, Anton will later take Alice away from the house; Alois “had with the Russian admitted his own, personal Trojan horse.” And when Alice leaves, she does not take Paul with her.

This appears to have had a long-lasting effect on Paul as, at forty-nine, he is not only unmarried but seems to have little interest in forming a long-term relationship. This is not to say he has not interest in sex as he sleeps with prostitutes at a local club , and goes every year to Thailand with his only friend Hedwig (another loner) where his habit of buying sex began years before. If Paul does not at first appear pitiful, it is because he seems satisfied with the limited life he is living. Like his father, who becomes homesick during his honeymoon, Paul has no great desire to see the world. However, as the novel progresses, the foundations of his life begin to look increasingly shaky. His father has a wound on his leg which will not heal:

“It had started out as an innocent enough little cut; his father had paid no attention to it… In old age, the little details could suddenly bring you down. Paul thought about his father with only one leg. He feared that that would exceed his competency as ‘informal care-giver’.”

Hedwig offers him little solace (“Hedwig’s conversation had grown limited to illness and death”) and, when, in reaction to the threat of loneliness (“Anything better than dying lonely”), he goes on a date with a woman he was at school, with, he cannot sustain an erection:

“Nakedness had revealed an old woman.”

Into this mid-life crisis comes a Russian, a friend of the local gangster and pimp (and another one time fellow pupil), Laurens Steggink (“Steggink didn’t have a biography, he had a charge sheet”). Paul, of course, has an inbuilt dislike of Russians (“Russians, he had no use for them…”). When Hedwig foolishly tells everyone he is a millionaire (he isn’t) and is then robbed, Paul is certain that Steggink and the Russian are behind it.

Paul’s dislike of Russians forms part of a wider, and more subtle, examination of immigration in the novel. “He had seen more folk from the east in recent years,” he thinks to himself at one point. The bar he frequents is run by a Chinese family and the customers regularly make comments about what goes into the food. Races and nationalities are reduced to stereotype: Paul gets his security system upgraded in fear of Steggink and the Russian by a Pole:

“The historical role of the Pole, Paul thought as he watched the man work, is to protect us from the Russians.”

His prejudices (except when it comes to the Russian) are largely passive, but he does regard those who are not Dutch as ‘other’, exacerbating his isolation. Yet when he learns that the Chinese family are selling the bar:

“He felt abandoned, betrayed. The Chinese had somehow been a window on the world, without them it seemed like a possibility had been cut off.”

Paul demonstrates that attitudes to immigration are complex: at different times he enjoys, dislikes, or is indifferent to those from elsewhere, while at the same time happy to exploit Asian prostitutes both at home and abroad.

Partly, this is a result of not feeling he can, or even wishing to, change anything. The Blessed Rita is “the patroness of hopeless causes.” In speaking about his ‘millions’ Hedwig had made the mistake of drawing attention to himself. Rita is also the name of one of the prostitutes he visits, and, (and this is not unconnected) reminds him of his mother:

“Rita of Cascia hadn’t flinched at giving up her offspring for the sake of her great love, just like his own mother.”

In Paul, Wieringa gives us another example of the male midlife crisis, but not of an academic in a comfortable university town, but of an ordinary man in a rundown backwater who has come to realise he is all but alone. In doing so, he draws attention to many of the problems of our age.