While one man struggles with his origins, a ragged group of wanderers walks across the steppe.
A small band of refugees is walking across the Eurasian steppe. They’d signed up to be ferried, illegally, across the border to a better life. They’d been tricked. Now, they must walk. They are starving to death. One by one, their members drop. Meanwhile, in a small, provincial town far away, a police commissioner named Pontus Beg is growing old. As he goes about clearing up the minor transgressions of his community—a man has run over another man’s sheep—he struggles to make sense of his position in the wider world. What puzzles him is the memory of a song his mother sang to him when he was a child. It’s a Yiddish song; but why would his mother sing a Yiddish song? As Beg uncovers a secret his mother kept from him, a secret that changes the way he understands his own identity, that ever shrinking band of refugees keeps creeping through the steppe. They’re not unlike the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Gradually, Beg’s story begins to merge with the lonely band’s, a band that includes a tall man, a young boy, an addict, a poacher, an Ethiopian, and a woman. This latest novel from Libris Prize winner Wieringa (Little Caesar, 2012, etc.) is a quiet masterpiece. Wieringa combines the primal, raw, archetypal vision of José Saramago with the apocalyptic sweep of Cormac McCarthy. The result is entirely his own. In Garrett’s elegant translation, Wieringa’s prose is lucid as cut glass, his images stark, his landscape desolate and otherworldly at the same time that it is contemporary. His unalloyed depiction of emigration will reverberate keenly in a Europe facing ever growing numbers of exiles, evacuees, escapees of war. It will reverberate, as well, in a United States muddled by its own border policies. To open the doors or shut them? As it turns out, that’s only one of the questions.
A magnum opus from a leading young writer takes on the meaning of exile, identity, faith, and the limits of endurance.