Award winning Dutch author Tommy Wieringa’s latest novel in translation is The Blessed Rita (translated by Sam Garrett) . The book is apparently semi-autobiographical but it is one in which Wieringa imagines a life not lived. A life in which he stayed tied to a rural part of the Netherlands and the ennui that would likely have come with that decision. But at the same time, Wieringa cannot help but comment on the state of modern Europe.
Paul Krüzen is close to fifty. He lives with his ageing father in a farmhouse in a small village near the German border. He makes a living by buying and selling World War II memorabilia and he has one good friend – Hedwig Geerdink. Hedwig runs the local grocery, a store he inherited from his parents and which is basically out of business due to the opening of a supermarket nearby. The two hang around either at a local bar or the brothel. Hedwig’s bragging brings him to the attention of another old schoolmate, Steggink and his muscled up Russian friend, and things go downhill from there.
The Blessed Rita is a melancholic book. Wieringa explores themes of loneliness and connection, of loyalty and ambition. Paul is constantly trying and failing to break out of the life he was left in as a child when his mother ran away with another man. Stuck in a rut in which he eats the same meals on the same days of every week. But even when things look like they will change for the better, when he has the opportunity to make a new connection, Paul struggles with himself and shies away. And as trouble mounts, he withdraws further and his world starts to shrink even more.
The Blessed Rita, as with many current European novels, cannot help but reflect the new European reality. Paul’s troubles start with an “illegal” immigrant, an escapee from Soviet Russia. But the current state of the town epitomises the porous borders of the new Europe where everyone is looking for opportunity and either exploiting the place they end up in or moving on when they can not find it. And under this all is the fetishisation of the past represented by Paul’s World War II memorabilia business.
The Blessed Rita finds its centre in a likeable but hopeless main character who it is easy to empathise with. Wieringa perfectly captures the beauty and stagnation of the rural Netherlands and the choices open to the people who stay there. At times bleakly comic, and at times dark and truthful, this is another tough novel from Wieringa that is well worth the effort.