I’ve an interest in Dutch culture because of my husband’s Dutch heritage so when I came across this title by a Dutch writer in some Best Books of 2016 lists, I decided to read it. I’m glad I did.
Alternating chapters tell two stories which eventually merge. In a fictional Eastern European town bordering on the Western Steppe, 53-year-old Pontus Beg, the police commissioner, searches for meaning for his lonely life. Walking west on the steppes is a small group of refugees fleeing poverty and repression. Eventually, Beg meets the migrants when they arrive in his town carrying evidence of a crime.
The novel’s title taken from the opening lines of the Book of Exodus clearly indicates one of its major themes: migration. The frail and starving refugees spend months on the featureless and desolate steppes, like the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. They are not identified by name; they are known as the tall man, the poacher, the young boy, the woman, the Ethiopian, etc. Over time, they lose their possessions and their pasts; some even lose their lives. Even “Their footsteps were wiped out quickly behind them.” Considering events in Europe, this is a very relevant theme.
The human desire to begin again, to be reborn to a new life, is emphasized. Obviously, the refugees left their homes so they could find new lives for themselves and their families. Beg, when he sees a synagogue’s ritual bath, imagines being immersed in it and becoming a new person: “What a pleasant, comforting thought . . . to shed his old soul, that tattered, worn thing, and receive a new one in its stead. Who wouldn’t want that? Who would turn down something like that?”
Our common humanity is also emphasized. Beg is told by a rabbi that Jews are “’a braided rope, individual threads woven to from a single cord. That’s how we are linked’” but that connection obviously applies to all humanity. A refugee looks at the body of one of his fellow travelers and makes a realization: “What were the differences between them again? He couldn’t remember. It had to be there, that bottomless difference, but his hands clutched at air. Now that the delusions had lifted, he saw only how alike they had been in their suffering and despair.”
Part of that humanity is an instinct for self-preservation. What people will do to survive is amazing. The woman in the group resorts to eating sand. The young boy is horrified and understands the feral nature of her actions when he says, “’You can’t eat sand! People don’t eat sand!’” The need to survive means stripping bodies of their clothing and precludes kindness towards others. When one of the refugees gives some food to another who is so weak from lack of food that he is struggling to continue, his compassion is perceived as strange. Even the one who is saved by the man’s self-sacrifice questions his benefactor: “The black man helped him move along and supported him when he could go no farther, but that also meant he was to blame for the way his earthly suffering dragged on. Gratitude and hateful contempt chased each other like minnows at the bottom of a pool.” The young boy best summarizes the disturbing behaviour he witnesses: “And along his way he has seen almost every sin you could imagine – there are so many more of them than he’d ever realized!”
As I read this book, I was reminded of Voltaire’s statement that, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Voltaire was arguing that belief in God is beneficial and necessary for society to function. The migrants, trying to find meaning in their circumstances, form beliefs resembling a religion: “a shared conviction took hold.” One of the travelers justifies their plundering an old woman’s food supplies by stating, “’She was there for us, so that we could go on.’” They believe they were lead to her by their bodiless god because “they had been chosen”; Beg questions one of the survivors: “’He was on your side; he was only there for you people. Not for some feeble-minded woman; only for you. He allowed you to rob her of everything she had because you people were his favourites, am I right?’” Of course this idea of chosenness is to remind the reader of the belief of the Jews that they are God’s chosen people.
This novel could be called a parable for contemporary times. It seems a simple story but has several messages. A re-reading would undoubtedly reveal more depths.