Review: These are the Names

Lonely life in a Leviathan-like landscape


By Tommy WieringaScribe, £14.99

This is an astonishing book. Original, dark and quite unlike anything else I have read. And yet it speaks to the mood of our times. It is a novel about violence and barbarism, the fragility of civilisation and a world of people on the move, migrants desperate for a better life.

Although Tommy Wieringa is Dutch and has written a dozen novels over the past 20 years, several of which (including this one) have been shortlisted for Dutch literary awards, These are the Names feels like something written a long way from Holland. Wieringa has created an extraordinary world, that nevertheless feels absolutely authentic.

The central character is Pontus Beg, who is 53 and has been in the police force for more than 30 years. What life he will lead when he retires is inconceivable. In a novel full of lonely people, he is perhaps the most desperately lonely of all. His parents are dead, his sister is estranged, he has no wife and no children.

He is dedicated to his job, upholding the law in a lawless place, the Wild East, somewhere in the former Soviet Union but a long way from Moscow.

Wieringa has created an extraordinary world that nevertheless feels authentic

Beg is deeply sympathetic, but also corrupt and capable of great violence. When, for example, he picks up a claw hammer, you know it is going to be used to terrible effect.

He lives in a small town near the border. It is a godforsaken place in a godforsaken part of what might be central Asia. Life in this town is not dissimilar from that conveyed in last year's extraordinary Russian film, Leviathan. If you have seen that, you can picture this.

It is not clear exactly in what period the novel is set, but it is "after the empire's collapse" and a long time after the Nazis came and killed hundreds of thousands of people in the area, Jews and Red Army soldiers. And there is one other thing: Beg can remember his mother singing a Yiddish lullaby.

The chapters with Beg alternate with chapters about a strange, mysterious group of migrants who are looking for a new life, across the border. There are seven of them, five men, a woman and a teenage boy. The story tells of how extreme cold and starvation turn them into savages, capable of anything.

The novel is about borders - the border between the town and the steppe, a wilderness that stretches for hundreds of miles; the border between civilisation and barbarism, between past and present. But, as the novel becomes increasingly complex, almost hallucinatory, you begin to wonder if there is any border at all.

Finally, there are two rabbis in this derelict town. The last Jews. Or are they? There are several mysteries in this fascinating and superbly told story. Who are the migrants? Where have they come from and where are they going? And who is the last Jew in this town in the middle of nowhere?

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive