Book Review - The Blessed Rita

There is a chilling beauty to many bleak landscapes and Tommy Wieringa’s stark portrait of a remote Dutch community, expertly translated by Sam Garrett, reminds us that the same is true in literature. The Blessed Rita is a compelling portrait of the forgotten, and Wieringa makes a convincing case for empathy with those living on the margins of society.

Paul and Hedwig live in rural east Netherlands, close to the German border. The two friends enjoy a slow way of life, an awkward bachelor existence where nothing much happens. They go on holiday together once a year, usually to Asian countries with an accessible sex trade. Back home, Paul visits Club Pacha to see his favourite prostitute, Rita. Approaching 50, he finds himself uncomfortably alone and childless, living with and looking after his aging father, Aloïs, in their disused farmhouse. Paul’s increasingly fevered thoughts build to the crushing realisation that any possibility of a different future may already have passed.

Paul’s mother, Alice, left them when he was eight. A Russian pilot (escaping Soviet repression) had crash-landed in a nearby field. Aloïs rescued the badly wounded man, Alice nursed the invalid and then absconded with him, leaving Paul with a bitter taste in his mouth and a visceral distrust of Russians. He finds a kinship of sorts with fellow oddball Hedwig. The childhood friends never leave their village. While Hedwig takes on his family’s dilapidated grocery store, Paul becomes a junk collector. He gradually branches out into German militaria; the proximity to the border providing a lucrative trade.

Rita is the patron saint of lost causes, venerated by the Catholic Church. Paul wears her medallion (a gift from Hedwig) with a grim acceptance. Many villagers have moved west. The Chinese and east Europeans have filled the vacuum – treated with barely concealed contempt by the remaining locals.  In this backwater, any sense of faith has gradually been eroded. As Paul observes, sadly: “People had no belief these days. Not in anything; above all, not in themselves.” The church limps on, but Aloïs and Hedwig prefer to listen to the weekend services on the radio, rather than attend in person. Even the Brazilian priest is “imported”.

A shocking moment comes when Paul is offered the possibility of redemption with a local woman, an old school friend, widowed with grown children. They meet for coffee, and enjoy some wine and pizza. It looks as though they will get it together but Paul loses his desire at the sight of her grey pubic hair and a body that has borne several children. He realises he can only become aroused with the young women he pays. His dawning horror that sex has become a commodity matches our own.

Things take another ruinous turn when Hedwig is robbed of the life savings he keeps stashed in his house. He is badly beaten and left shaken and afraid. This rouses Paul to action – he becomes increasingly convinced that local gangster, Laurens Steggink (owner of Pacha) and his Russian sidekick are to blame. However, as soon as Paul starts accusing them, he leaves himself open to a similar attack.

Wieringa’s novel is firmly situated in a rural topography. Sam Garrett has skilfully translated the vernacular of the countryside into simple, concise language, and brilliantly captures Paul’s subtle shifts in tone enabling the reader to sympathise with this flawed character. Paul reveals a softer side when observing nature. Foreshadowing his own plight, there is a memorable scene when he describes an orphaned baby hare being taunted by a crow: “It pressed itself trembling against the ground. The time had come, and time took the form of a sharp-billed bird in widow’s weeds. It picked at you. You felt everything, every sabre-cut, Paul thought, but you had to steel yourself. It took a strong suit of armour to be neutral…You had to know your place in the food chain… and arm yourself.”

The Blessed Rita begins with an image of Paul chopping wood, “This was his life: he put wood on the block and he split it.” However, Wieringa suggests, this simple way of life is no longer assured. The novel ends with him chopping down a small plot of trees for his own safety. Paul cannot escape the modern world, the grinding wheels of capitalism and the threat of violence that encroaches, ever closer.

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