Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2020

The Blessed Rita, by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett

It takes a special sort of skill to represent an underclass in fiction.  There is the difficulty of knowing the subject well enough, and having the empathy to represent the sub-culture fairly and without being judgemental.  And then there is the problem of writing the story so that it engages the better-off, the ones most likely to buy the book.  Authors take on this task because, it seems to me, that they want to bring attention to the inequities that bedevil society.  All the way from 19th century authors like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola; to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906); John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939); James Kelmann’s How Late It Was, How Late (1994) and Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs (2010).  Closer to home there are the great chroniclers of the Depression: Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) and Kylie Tennant’s The Battlers (1941), and more recently Paddy O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust (2012) writing about a single mother in a depressed country town. All these authors have cared about the lives of the poor, the dispossessed, and the forgotten, and have used the power of the pen to draw attention to the essential humanity of the underclass.

Dutch author Tommy Wieringa writes about people on the margins of society in his new novel, The Blessed Rita. His central character Paul Krüzen, lives with his ageing father in an old farmhouse, not far from the German border, in the era when there are no borders in Europe any more*.  The village he lives in is the kind of dying village that’s common all over the world as corporate agribusiness takes over the small farms that were a way of life for centuries.  For Paul the world outside the village burst into his young life when his father rescued a Russian pilot from a burning plane in their maize field.  The Russian, escaping the USSR, repaid him by debunking with Paul’s mother, who yearned for a wider world and took the opportunity when it came.  But Paul has never taken any opportunities that came his way.  For all the inadequacies of his circumscribed life, he gets homesick and wants to return to the father who took care of him when he was young.  He takes care of his father now, and he makes his living selling WW1 and WW2 memorabilia on the internet…

…Including Nazi stuff to neo-Nazis, who he seems to think are pathetic rather than the scourge they really are. Wieringa does not shy away from depicting aspects of his central character in ways that are distasteful, but he does so in a rounded portrait: a motherless boy who became a man who can’t have a relationship with a real woman his own age—because he has succumbed to a version of womanhood that can be bought in an brothel offering pert Asian women.  A man in his fifties who yearns for companionship but is ill-fitted for it: his only fond relationship is with the father he cares for with dogged devotion, and he fears the loneliness of the future when his father dies, an inevitability which seems imminent.  He is a friendless man who is envious of the expensive cars of his sleazy peers from school who lord it over the locals with the Russian thugs that facilitate their ‘business’.  Hedwiges, another misfit, is a companion rather than a friend.  He presides over the failing grocery store that’s been displaced by the supermarket, and his only topic of conversation is death.  They take short sex-tours in Thailand together, but they do not share confidences or even common interests.

Tragedy, when it comes, reveals to Paul the futility of his own life.  It forces him to confront the emptiness of his future. The Chinese who came, unwelcome, into the village and set up a café, are now leaving for more profitable ventures elsewhere.  The borders, whatever protection they once offered, are fluid now, and Paul knows that all the expensive security technology in the world can’t protect him from theft and thuggery.  Religion is no solace in an era of declining congregations and even the priest is an outsider from the globalised world.  The police, quick to enforce traffic violations, take an hour to turn up after a crime, and they’re afraid of the Russian thugs too.

Paul is a weak man, physically and mentally.  Which makes his heroic stand at the end of the book all the more remarkable.  He knows the risks, but from within the sanctuary of a church no longer protected by long-held custom, he speaks the truth that the whole village denies out of fear. And then he waits for the penalty.

It’s a disconcerting conclusion.

Theresa Smith reviewed it too.

*I am mindful that, as of yesterday, borders are being resurrected all over Europe to contain the pandemic.

Author: Tommy Wieringa
Title: The Blessed Rita
Publisher: Scribe, 2020, first published as  De heilige Rita in 2017
Cover design by Scribe
ISBN: 9781925713268, pbk., 241 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: The Blessed Rita


Responses

  1. Truly tragic, and I dare say that heroic act of Paul’s at the end of the book might do little to redeem that tragic element pervasive in the book. Somehow this reminds me of the theme of tragedy of the common man that runs through the works of writers like Arthur Miller and particularly in his play, Death of a Salesman.
    Great review, Lisa. :-)

    Like

    • Thanks, Celestine:)
      Good point about the common man…

      Like

  2. […] The Blessed Rita, by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett […]

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