Posts Tagged ‘Tommy Wieringa’

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.

The Death of Murat Idrissi

March 18, 2019

The death of Murat Idrissi is central to Tommy Wieringa’s Man Booker International Prize listed novel The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett), but Murat Idrissi himself is not. Instead Wieringa tells the story of Moroccan immigrants from the point of view of second generation, Dutch passport-holding Ilham. Murat is largely silent, out of sight, and, eventually, nothing but an awkward encumbrance to be disposed of: in other words, a representation of Western attitudes to those who attempt to cross from Africa to Europe.

Ilham, and her friend Thouraya, agree to smuggle Murat from Morocco to Spain in the boot of their rented car. They are pressured into doing this by their new friend, Saleh, who claims cars are never checked, by the poverty of Murat’s family, and by Murat’s mother, who claims she will kill herself if they do not take him. They are also offered money.

Ilham’s trip to Morocco appears ill-fated from the start, when a minor car accident deprives them of much of their money. This is one reason they befriend Saleh, who, like them, benefits from a European passport, another being the protection afforded by a male escort as “women in Morocco rarely travel alone”:

“He kept the boys at bay. At bakers’ stands in the Casbah they had seen hornets teaming over the sugar-coated croissant; that’s how it was with the boys, too.”

Though Alham’s parents are Moroccan, she feels alienated from the country:

“She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat, and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this.”

This attitude she applies to her own father, comparing him to his brother:

“Life beat them down. Her uncle rose to his feet again, her father remained lying; he was the weaker of the two.”

Looking out at the Moroccan landscape she thinks, “It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept.” However, she is equally aware that neither is she regarded as Dutch, particularly after 9/11:

“Then two planes drilled themselves into the heart of the Western world… She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over.”

Later she tells us that the only Dutch people she sees are at the call centre where she works, and when the two women are back in Europe it is a group of men of North African extraction which Thouraya seeks to attach herself to. Alham recognises in one the determination to assimilate:

“Suddenly she got it. His mimicry. The hard work – how he had become a perfectly assimilated migrant’s son. He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch.”

In this way Wieringa, in a slim novel, covers a range of immigrant experience, highlighting that immigrants are not one homogenous group, or all on the same ‘side’. It’s a novel remarkably free of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, with all displaying elements of selfishness, from Saleh’s failure to check on Murat during the ferry crossing, to Thouraya’s sexual needs.

This is the first time I have read Wieringa and he reminded me a little of Peter Stamm, another writer where ordinary, almost banal characters, have their lives interrupted by something extraordinary. As Alham asks at one point:

“Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger?”

Murat’s fate, as revealed in the title, provides the kind of tension one would normally associate with a thriller, but Wieringa is not interested in melodrama. Alhama’s emotions tend to be fleeting and superficial; nothing, apparently, touches her deeply.

The Death of Murat Idrissi is a sly, subtle – one might even say cagey – novel. A simple story which refuses to simplify the issues it raises, it’s difficult not to read it as a commentary on Western indifference disguised in such a way as to make blaming others (as its characters frequently do) the easiest way out.