Tommy Wieringa / Scribe
Somewhere out in the anteroom to Western Europe, east of the Carpathians, stands the fictional city of Michailopol. Its police commissioner is the life-weary Pontus Beg who stands neither at the top nor at the bottom of a nationwide system of corruption, kickbacks and intimidation. At 53 and with a job that has made him more intimate with death than he’d like to be, Beg desires to finally belong somewhere. Maybe he could be a father, or at least make something more permanent of the companionable warmth of his housekeeper and lover. It’s in this mood that he encounters the last Jew of Michailopol, the Rabbi Zelman Eder, from whom he takes hold of a thread of identity in the shape of a memory that he believes he has recovered of his mother’s hidden Judaism. Further to the east still, out on the steppe, that vast wilderness cutting a swathe across the former Soviet imperium, the agonised remains of a truckload of people who have paid a smuggling syndicate to be carried across a border to their dream of the west, struggle on foot from hopelessness to despair in their search first for the civilisation they’ve been promised and then only for basic survival. A tall man, a boy, an Ethiopian, a woman, a man from Ashkhabad, a poacher and the crazed Vitaly scrounge and pick for morsels of food and warmth through an unforgiving landscape that has been emptied of people and promise. By the time they arrive in Beg’s city, they have been pared back further by starvation, competition, suspicion and, crucially, by their own shocking inhumanity to one of their number. It’s when the group arrive in the city, belatedly for the energy of the novel at least, that the story proper really begins to unfold. Here the “untouchables became a persistent rumour in the alleyways of the bazaar and the streets of the city, it hopped like a virus from one mouth to the next”. They carry with them the evidence of a murder and are drawn into the unsubtle investigative methods of Pontus Beg. The drifters are, to the people of Michailopol, ghosts from the past. Starved, emaciated, they are Europe’s repressed vision of the Jews who were once in their midst. Through Beg’s search for his own possible Judaism, Wieringa makes explicit the parallel between the story of these all-too familiar contemporary migrants and that of the Exodus and deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. Beg, as the man stained by and wanting deliverance from the systemic corruption of his society, is in some ways the only fully-fledged character in the book. Everyone else is a ghost of his psyche. The novel’s question is whether, despite Beg’s own corruption and wilful cruelty and despite the deep stains on his soul, he can show himself to be a Good Man, that he won’t be able to ignore his own compassionate better instincts. The haunted psychogeography of the novel depends on its being observed from this dual mind, one that nominally, falsely perhaps, belongs in the ‘civilised’ west, and the other in its disturbed unconscious. In this way there’s a lot to recall here from Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe and China Mieville’s crosshatched The City and the City. The unreality that prevails in this indeterminate, slippery geography, depends on both cross-generational and circumstantial blindness to the humanity of other people. Even among the drifters, those who are the most abject victims, this inability to recognise the humanity of the other manifests in rank cruelty, in acts they transform, through their need to find pattern and meaning in the incomprehensible, into something resembling religion, a disturbing reminder that we make our own gods, our own memories. In the end, when Beg searches for a way to redeem himself, and to transform the life of the boy who is the most vulnerable of all the refugees, his solution is to come up with a clever legal idea, a neat manoeuvre that exploits his own new identity and that no one, least of all the boy, believes as truth. While Wieringa lays bare the fact that the lives of people are materially transformed by the stories they tell about themselves, his logic also suggests that any supposed inner transformation is without substance. It’s a deeply pragmatic and cynical logic, but one that, like this novel, deserves to be taken seriously.