The Golden Age of Dutch art hung Ruisdael windmills and Rembrandt granaries in the gallery of our international imagination. These were picturesque images of tranquility that dotted a cloudy plain, where sea and land mixed in infinite flatness. After countless losses to the French, the English and the Germans, the flatness remains, covering over the rotted corpses of soldiers and shells from 350 years of battles. Those who could have long ago fled the farms for the pleasures of Amsterdam or the wealth of the reborn Berlin. But some of the Dutch, like hares hardwired to eke out their lives in a single field, remain, even when the grain has been harvested and they are nakedly open, easy prey for hungry crows.
Paul Krüzen is just such an animal. The hero of Tommy Wieringa’s haunting new novel The Blessed Rita is a fifty-something Everyman. Abandoned by his mother at a tender age, Paul has nevertheless remained in Mariënveen, the hamlet where he was born. In a former mill, Paul cooks potatoes drowned in gravy and tends to his ailing father. Out back is a barn where he runs a mail-order business specialising in Nazi uniforms and other war memorabilia. The windmill of his ancestors is gone. The landscape is pockmarked now by the Happytaria, Shu’s Dynasty, Club Pacha, and Paul’s school chum Hedwig’s dusty grocery store, long past its sell-by date. The burghers and peasants of yore have been replaced by Polish security-alarm salesmen, small-time Russian hoods, Thai hookers, and unreliable electricity. ‘Out here,’ Paul says, ‘we’re at the end of the wire.’
And yet, every time Paul raises his head above his station and ventures out of his field, to buy decommissioned war pistols and musty uniforms, or to dally with Asian girls on sex holidays with Hedwig, he returns to Mariënveen in a panic of homesickness. The Blessed Rita is ‘the lamentation of the stay behind’, as Paul clearly sees himself, one of the many around him who ‘were doing their best to bring their desires into line with their possibilities’.
Tommy Wieringa is the prizewinning author of many novels, shortlisted in 2020 for the International Booker Prize. Depressing as Paul’s flatland life may sound, The Blessed Rita is often as funny a novel as any Carl Hiaasen and as lyrical as any Cormac McCarthy, those American masters of other endless vistas. But there is also something very much Wieringa’s own in the way he teases out Paul’s descent into the heart of his own darkness. Centuries after Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Dutch East India Company and the Boer trekkers, the Dutch may be finding it harder to reclaim their identity within a changing Europe than to reclaim arable land from the sea. The new Dutch masters may be writers instead of painters who, like Wieringa, haunt us with portraits of people trying to keep breathing even as the waters rise around them.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
THE BLESSED RITA
Written by Tommy Wieringa
Translated by Sam Garrett
Published by Scribe Publications (2020)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
US-born Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels Septimania and A Guide for the Perplexed. A founding editor of Granta, he currently lives and teaches in Rome.
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