The Blessed Rita…
About the Book:
‘He had seen more and more people from the East in recent years. Mostly gypsies, people said. Bulgarians, Romanians — you could tell by the plates on the vans and the trailers. The Poles had been around for some time already. Burglaries, thefts. The blessings of the new Europe.’
Paul Krüzen lives with his father in an old farmhouse, not far from the German border. Where once his father took care of him, now he takes care of his father. It has been a long time since his beautiful, worldly-wise mother left them for the arms of a Russian pilot, never once looking back.
Paul’s world is changing: his small Dutch village is now home to Chinese restaurateurs, Polish plumbers, and Russian thugs. Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, watches over Paul and his best friend Hedwiges, 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 sharply observed, darkly funny novel, Wieringa shines a light on people struggling at the margins of a changing world. The Blessed Rita is an affecting tribute to those left behind and an ode to those wanting to transcend themselves and their heritage.
One of the things I enjoy most about reading novels that have been translated is that window into another culture that you are able to peer through for the duration. It’s a step further than reading novels set in another place; with a translation, your novel is set in another place as well as being written by an author whose culture is different to your own. Subsequently, allowances for cultural differences need to be considered whilst reading.
The Blessed Rita is a Dutch novel, set in a small Dutch village that lies close to the German border. Post WWII novels set in Europe are always of interest to me, particularly those that are focused on what life was like under the shadow of such widespread devastation throughout the continent. In this, The Blessed Rita doesn’t disappoint. The village is a place where ‘foreigners’ are so few that they can still be counted. The world is changing, technology is advancing and borders are no longer walls; but this village seems to be caught in a Twin Peaks sort of zone, where change is only reaching out with a few tentacles rather than a stranglehold. The casual racism and suspicion of anyone foreign went hand in hand; sadly, this felt all too genuine.
Paul, our main character, is man on the cusp of fifty, still living at home. He is his father’s unofficial carer, a role reversal that he ponders on frequently. There is a lovely relationship between father and son that has its roots in abandonment: Paul’s mother left the family when he was eight. We learn a lot throughout the novel about this pivotal time in Paul’s life: he attributes this time to his first solid memories of his father as something other than a formless being. It’s the time when a Russian escaping the USSR crashed an airplane in their yard and ended up living with them. It’s when his mother left with said Russian, leaving Paul behind and never seeing him again. It’s also the time when Paul’s interest in collecting militaria began, a hobby that he would turn into a profitable career.
The story moves back and forth without warning, and in this it kind of wanders a bit, occasionally in a confusing and rambling sort of way. It’s character driven and there really isn’t a whole lot going on, but it does sustain interest. I do feel that this is very much a ‘man to man’ story though. It looks closely at what it’s like for a man to age alone, with few friends and little or no family. The only relationships Paul has is with his father, his friend Hedwiges whom he has known from school days, and a prostitute named Rita. With Paul and Hedwiges, the author examines in some detail the nature of male friendship between men who have little else within their lives to occupy themselves. Their friendship is awkward, at times Paul questions if they’re even friends – are they simply two men who know each other and go places together out of habit? It was something that I couldn’t really relate to from a woman’s perspective, and yet it was insightful all the same.
When opportunity presents itself for a new relationship, in the form of a woman Paul went to school with who is now widowed with grown children, you would think that he would jump at it. This is an example of the ‘man to man’ aspect I mentioned above. Paul is unable to have sex with this woman, who is the same age as him, because upon the sight of her greying pubic hair and body that has borne several children and aged accordingly, he loses his erection. For a man who had paid for every sexual encounter up until this point, he has a few too many tickets on himself in my opinion. I doubt he was all that much of a catch himself, in perfect ten out of ten condition. So, I had thought the story was going to head in one direction here, but the author veered off in another, far less appealing one. We then see Paul contemplating whether or not he could marry this woman without needing to have sex with her, because at fifty, she’s ‘old’ and therefore totally undesirable. I’m clearly not the intended reading market for this novel. There would be few women over forty who wouldn’t be repelled by this part of the story. Keep enjoying your prostitutes Paul, because that’s clearly your past, present, and future.
I did enjoy the observational style of writing and the atmosphere this conjured. The ‘Dutchness’ of it was reminiscent of my childhood within the household of my Flemish grandparents. This, on potatoes, I can entirely relate to:
‘It was amazing, all the things you could do with potatoes. Boiled, mashed, pureed, fried, deep-fried. As sticks, cubes, wedges, and slices, and probably a whole lot more if you gave it some thought.’
We had potatoes with meals you’d never dream of having potatoes with!
The ending was very abrupt. I was left with that feeling where you think the last chapter has been somehow left out of your book. There were too many threads left blowing in the wind for my liking. The Blessed Rita was a mixed bag for me, but there was definitely more to like than dislike.
Thanks is extended to Scribe for providing me with a copy of The Blessed Rita for review.
About the Author:
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 the Translator:
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.
The Blessed Rita
Published by Scribe
Released 3rd March 2020