A small group of desperate people travel on foot through the steppe. Who are they, where do they come from, what brought them together, and where are they going? A top policeman comes from a town cut loose from the old Soviet Union and exists now on the margins. These are the central actors in Tommy Wieringa’s latest novel, These Are the Names, and when their lives intersect, a tale of cruelty, hope, and faith emerges.
Pontus Beg is the policeman. Wieringa describes him: “He had arrived at the age when only sex and large quantities of food provided him with sensations of happiness.” Until a song that his mother taught him kindles a desire to discover his family origins, Beg is a man marking time — unmarried, childless, and, except for his housekeeper who occasionally shares his bed, alone. Over time he has made his life a bulwark against pain and discomfort. Like policemen everywhere, years of witnessing the depths to which human beings can descend has taken a toll on Beg’s spirit. Only when he realizes — with the help of an old rabbi, the last surviving Jew in town — that he was born of a Jew does Beg regain a slim measure of passion for life.
Hope is also what drives the band of refugees on the steppe — an eerie, vast, lonely landscape that offers only hunger, cold, and thirst for miles in every direction. The poacher and the tall man, the woman and the boy, the man from Ashkhabad and the Ethiopian, thrown together by chance rather than choice, are clearly escaping dire circumstances, risking everything to migrate across one border to another. When one of them falls and is unable to walk on, he is left to perish, but not before his shoes are taken from his feet. Sentimentality has no place on this journey. As Wieringa writes, “If the group had to care for its individual members, it weakened.”
Wieringa’s prose is lyrical and haunting, and his descriptions of the steppe force the cold into the reader’s bones. Unflinching and at the same time beautiful, These are the Names is an unforgettable work of art.