Last year I was away touring Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia and I wasn’t able to participate in Boekenweek so I’m delighted to take part again this year and would like to thank Ruth Killick for inviting me. If you’d like to see which book I featured in 2018, please click here! Boekenweek has been celebrating Dutch fiction since 1935 and with so much wonderful writing in translation I knew I had to be part of this year’s celebrations.
Today, alongside my review, I have the opening to share with you from The Blessed Rita by Tommy Wieringa, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, so that you can see the poetic quality of the writing for yourself.
Published by Atlantic imprint Scribe on 12th March, The Blessed Rita is available for purchase here.
The Blessed Rita
In a certain sense, nothing had changed two men in a house and a half-century passing without a ripple but seen with the light from a different angle, none of it had remained the same.
What is the purpose of a man? Living in a disused farmhouse with his elderly father, Paul Krüzen is not sure he knows anymore. The mill his grandfather toiled in is closed, the glory of the Great Wars is long past, and it has been many years since his mother escaped in the arms of a Russian pilot, never once looking back. What do they have to look forward to now?
Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, watches over Paul and his best friend Horseradish Hedwig, two misfits at odds with the modern world, while Paul takes comfort in his own Blessed Rita, a prostitute from Quezon. But even she cannot protect them from the tragedy that is about to unfold.
In this darkly funny novel about life on the margins of society, Dutch sensation Tommy Wieringa asks what happens to those left behind.
An Extract from The Blessed Rita
Paul Krüzen spat on his hands, seized the handle, and swung the axe over his head. The log on the chopping block burst open, but didn’t cleave. Birds seeking evening shelter in the trees fled into the dusk. Furiously twittering blackbirds burst through the undergrowth. Paul Krüzen brought the axe down, again and again, until the chunk of oak parted. Then it got easier. The pieces flew. Woodchips everywhere, spots of light on the forest soil. Let the axe do the work, his father had taught him long ago, but what he liked was to put some power behind it.
A few pale stars appeared in the sky. Deep below that, in the clearing in the woods, the demon swung his axe. He made it crack like a whip. Blocks tumbled through the air. The beeches all around, strong and smooth as a young man’s arms, shivered with each blow.
This was his life: he put wood on the block and he split it. His shirt stuck to his body. Jabs of pain in his lower back. Each blow found its mark. He had been doing this for so long, all with measured, controlled haste. He had to sweat; it had to hurt.
He swiped his armpits with roll-on and put on a clean check shirt. ‘I’m off,’ he told his father, who was reading in his chair beneath the lamp.
The evening air was chilly, with a whiff of celery above the grass. With the car window open, he drove to the village. Three jarring speedbumps. Speed ramps and roundabouts were a mark of progress, of a jacked-up pace of living that had to be slowed down, even in Mariënveen, where the clodhoppers tended to get themselves killed at the weekend. Once every couple of years, Paul Krüzen would sit straight up in bed, awakened by the impact, the sirens, and the whine of chainsaws a little later, the play of phantom light on the oaks along the curve. The next morning, he would see that yet another wedge had been ripped from the bark. In recent years, the bereaved sometimes placed flowers and photographs beside the tree.
Paul pulled up in front of Hedwig Geerdink’s place. He rang the bell and went back to wait in the car, the door open. He had no thoughts at all. Early June, the last light on the western horizon. A little later, Hedwig slid in beside him. ‘Good evening, one and all,’ his friend said in his high voice. Hedwig had two voices: the high squeaky voice, or his low, hoarse, chesty one. Anyone hearing him for the first time immediately saw him split in two: the high Hedwig and the low Hedwig. Horseradish Hedwig, as they called him in the village.
Paul pulled his legs into the car, closed the door, and drove into the village.
My Review of The Blessed Rita
Paul Krüzen’s small village life contains more than he might imagine.
I so enjoyed The Blessed Rita. It’s rare outside the crime or thriller genres that I read books with a male protagonist and I found The Blessed Rita an evocative and moving portrait of a man in middle age. I don’t often make comparisons with other books, but The Blessed Rita felt rather like Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, but more literary in style.
I thought the writing was super. The book’s structure, as it moves between past and present events, needs concentration and I would recommend reading The Blessed Rita in a sustained way, but it is such a worthwhile narrative. Poetic language, frequent humour and bleak atmosphere make the story thrum with emotion. The translation by Sam Garrett has retained an authentic and particularly Dutch atmosphere, so that the entire reading experience is of quality and depth. Each chapter seems to end with a quiet poignancy that is actually curiously piercing too. I found this hugely effective and affecting. Admittedly, I found some of the sexual and racial viewpoints expressed by some of the minor characters uncomfortable, but Tommy Wieringa is displaying all too clearly the attitudes of so many against those who are different. There are a few sexually explicit scenes too, but I thought they were sensitively handled as a means to show Paul’s loneliness and longing and they are never gratuitous.
Paul’s story has a poetic and moving understanding from Tommy Wieringa. His character shows how the complex patterns of the past make us who we are now. Personal, geographical, political and historical aspects layer into Paul’s personality making him a fascinating person. Friendship, loyalty and the almost physical pull of home underpin who Paul is and make the reader long for him to achieve a better and more fulfilled life. His relationships with his parents and Hedwig are desperately sad and because the book ends rather ambiguously, I haven’t been able to stop wondering what is happening to Paul now. I so want him to be happy.
The Blessed Rita is literary, engaging and atmospheric. It takes the reader into the heart both of a Dutch community as well as an ordinary man with scalpel sharp precision. I really enjoyed reading it.
About Tommy Wieringa
Tommy Wieringa was born in 1967 and grew up partly in the Netherlands, and partly in the tropics. He began his writing career with travel stories and journalism, and is the author of several internationally bestselling novels. His fiction has been longlisted for the Booker International Prize, shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Oxford/Weidenfeld Prize, and has won Holland’s Libris Literature Prize.
About Sam Garrett
Sam Garrett has translated some fifty novels and works of nonfiction. He has won prizes and appeared on shortlists for some of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, and is the only translator to have twice won the British Society of Authors’ Vondel Prize for Dutch–English translation.
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