– Reinventing Topoi in Tommy Wieringa’s Dit zijn de namen
This is a paper I wrote a couple of years ago for the course “Interculturality: The Global Imagination” (Universiteit Leiden, ResMA Literary Studies). I post it here because it resonates with the current discussion about refugees in Europe.
A thought lingering in the West’s collective psyche is that the contemporary global world is in crisis. In this period of transition, Giorgio Agamben has designated the homo sacer, the person reduced to ‘bare life’ by a sovereign power, as the exemplary figure of modernity (Agamben 1995, Downey 2009). In his discussion of the relation of Agamben’s theory to artistic practice, Downey views “the refugee, the political prisoner, the disappeared, the victim of torture, the dispossessed” as contemporary examples of the homo sacer (Downey 109). Analyzing artworks concerning this figures, his aim is to investigate “the extent to which aesthetic practices are responsive to the sociopolitical, economic, historical and cultural dimensions of the moment in which they are produced, discussed, exchanged and displayed” (110). Downey’s account of the artworks highlights how the exemplary figure of the homo sacer is constituted in our current society as much as in art. In this paper I propose to view the problematic aspect of (illegal) immigration, and therefor the figure of the illegal immigrant, as representative of Europe’s condition today. I will demonstrate its importance by exploring how the figure of the illegal immigrant is posited in Dutch writer Tommy Wieringa’s latest novel, Dit zijn de namen (2012), by which my analysis will resonate with Downey’s attempt at localizing the homo sacer in contemporary artworks.
Wieringa’s Dit zijn de namen consists of a dual storyline divided by setting – a steppe region situated somewhere in Eastern Europe and a city called Michailopol. In the latter, the reader follows the story of police officer Pontus Beg who discovers his (possibly imagined) Jewish heritage. In the former, a bunch of refugees tries to cross the border illegally, and is dropped off in the steppe by smugglers, which is the start of a harrowing journey lasting months in which most of them die of starvation or exhaustion. In this second storyline, three remarkable elements stand out. The place in which these refugees try to survive is described on the one hand by the desolate, barren landscape of the steppe and on the other by the very definite boundary of the border which they try to cross. Finally, these refugees are described as travellers, trying to live in and travel through the steppe. The three elements bring to mind Inge Boer’s discussion of boundaries, the concept of the ‘desert’ and the ‘nomad’ in Uncertain Territories: Boundaries in Cultural Analysis (2006). In her aim to analyze “the meaning of boundaries” in cultural analysis, she discusses the topoi of the desert and the nomad as they are constituted in colonial, Orientalist discourses and in literary theory (Boer 17). When the issue of (illegal) immigration is deemed important, because we can designate it as exemplary for Europe’s current situation with the use of Downey’s figuration of the homo sacer, how can we analyze the Western representation of the immigrant, her/his place of travelling and the border in Dit zijn de namen in view of Boer’s discussion of intercultural boundaries?
What is remarkable in Boer, like in many other postcolonial theories, is that there seems to be an indirect binary distinction between Western literature and art and art or literature made by their ‘Other’. Western art is either a typical example of Orientalist discourse which displays stereotyping (as in the two travelogues Boer discusses in Chapter 3), or an account of a Westerner experiencing the discrepancy between his ideas and ‘reality’ (as in the example of Claude Ollier’s The Mise en Scene Boer discusses in Chapter 4). Art made by what the West considers the ‘Oriental Other’ is on the contrary subverting and exploring the implications of these stereotypical ideas (as in the feminist examples Boer gives in Chapter 1). In her discussion of Western en Middle Eastern feminism, Boer discusses a ‘feedback loop’ in which a multifaceted bundle of Western feminist ideas travelled to the Middle East, got interpreted and transformed by the local feminist struggle, and when transported back to the West was changed in the process (Boer 19-21). I wonder if a certain feedback loop is also possible for literature and art concerning Orientalist discourses and their subversion. By analyzing the topoi in Dit zijn de namen I will try to answer the question if a Western literature can reinvent itself and represent the supposed other and itself critically.
The possibility to examine the place in which the refugees of Dit zijn de namen encounter their harrowing experience, the steppe, with the use of the topos of ‘the desert’ is opened up by Inge Boer’s analysis of L’Invention du désert by Tahar Djaout in which Paris is also portrayed as desert-like: “[d]eserts, then, might be moving phenomena, metaphorical or not, residing in Northern cities, in the narrator’s head, or in the tundra of regions even further North” (Boer 132). When examining the characterization of the steppe in Dit zijn de namen, the choice of words indeed seems to refer directly to a comparison with the desert. First of all, the steppe is described as endless:
[…H]et raam kijkt nog altijd uit over een wildgroei aan schuurtjes en moestuinen, en de eindeloze ruimte van de steppe daarachter.(Wieringa 10)
Onafzienbaar was de ruimte waar ze doorheen trokken. Het landschap voor hen was precies hetzelfde als dat achter hen, en dat aan de rechterhand verschilde in niets van dat aan de linker. De enige richtsnoeren in de steppe waren de hemel boven hun hoofd en de grond onder hun voeten.(17)
The steppe is thus a space void of any points usable as guidelines. Besides, this space is characterized by a lack of basic sources needed for survival. The refugees collect water by spreading plastic sheets on the ground and licking dew from them in the morning. The rest of the day, they remain thirsty (Wieringa 14). Food is also very scarce. They search for roots in the earth and the person called ‘the poacher’ tries to catch small animals, succeeding less and less when their journey drags on (Wieringa 151). Thus, like the Western colonial fiction of the desert, the steppe is here rendered “empty” (Boer 107; 113).
Moreover, the novels twice refers to an important element of the desert; the mirage (Boer 111). The first reference is directly related to the barrenness of the steppe:
Dorst die alle gedachten overstemde, dorst die je koele vijvers voorspiegelde, die het geluid van druppelende kranen in je oren toverde.(Wieringa 14)
The second fata morgana refers to the refugees’ desperate longing for a sign of habitation:
Het wordt avond zonder dat ze het dorp van hun dromen hebben gevonden. Stap voor stap hebben ze de verrukkelijke luchtspiegeling zien verdwijnen. Verslagen zitten ze in de schemering in het zand.(Wieringa 31)
Due to the characterization of endlessness and barrenness and the pertaining to fata morganas, the steppe is thus heavily entwined with the topos of the desert. A last element in which the novel’s rendering of the steppe overlaps with ‘the desert’, is the referral to death. In the physical description of what the space looks like, the image of dead trees and dry shrubs is used repeatedly (for example Wieringa 70). This emphasis on the materiality of the space it, too, has in common with representations of the desert (Boer 108). Besides, the novel has many references to death and the dead, both literally and metaphorically. When refugees die, their dead body is described in a very physical manner (Wieringa 120). The few things which the refugees do encounter on their journey are kurgans (burial mounts) and long abandoned villages (Wieringa 85; 30). The latter are directly designated as “dead” by one of the refugees (30). This emphasis on death and the dead is a motif overlapping with the stereotypical emptiness of the desert; it is the emptiness of life (Boer 114).
However, some differences between ‘the desert’ and the steppe of Dit zijn de namen also exist. According to Boer, the desert is considered empty in the Western imagination, because it “[…] renders then suitable spaces for colonization” (107).
The geographical expanses called deserts evoke two related responses: one is to consider deserts as empty, devoid of signs of life, and the other is to subsequently move in, conquer, traverse or colonize these spaces by setting up boundary markers.(Boer 107)
However, the empty space of the steppe is not deemed suitable for colonization. No one is even interested in it anymore:
Er zijn plannen geweest voor stadsuitbreiding naar het oosten, er waren halfslachtige bouwvoorbereidingen, maar het is er allemaal niet van gekomen, het raam kijkt nog altijd uit over een wildgroei aan schuurtjes en moestuinen, en de eindeloze ruimte van de steppe daarachter.(Wieringa 10)
The steppe will remain empty, except for the unfortunate refugees who are forced to travel through it. These refugees do indeed ‘traverse’ the space, they need to ‘conquer’ it, but not to be able to designate it as their property. They want to leave it behind as soon as possible. Besides, the problematic stereotyping of the steppe as empty is not a theme in the novel, like in The Mise en Scene of Claude Ollier Boer discusses (120-127). The stereotype does not reside inside one of the characters of the novel, ultimately clashing with reality during the development of the story. In Dit zijn de namen the Western perception of the steppe as empty lies outside the diegesis.
The refugees of Dit zijn de namen, travelling through the desert-like steppe, foreground another element pertaining to the stereotypical representation of ‘the desert’: the nomad (Boer 109). Like the mirage, this stereotypical element is directly referred to in the novel. First, the group of refugees is twice described as a “karavaan” (caravan) (Wieringa 41; 149). Remarkable, this image of the group as caravan is used when the racist, discriminating ideas of some of the refugees regarding the refugee from Ethiopia is displayed:
Nu moest hij de man uit Ethiopië als mens beschouwen, terwijl hij hem eerder had gezien als een onschadelijk dier in de staart van de karavaan, dat tussen hun benen schuimde en de hazenbotten nog verder afkloof dan zij al hadden gedaan.(Wieringa 41, emphasis original)
Besides, once the refugees are directly compared to nomads in a very stereotypical image:
Ze graven als bezetenen naar uien en de bollen van wilde tulpen. Als ze vertrekken is de grond omgewoeld, alsof nomaden er naar schatten hebben gegraven.(Wieringa 87)
According to Boer, the figure of ‘the nomad’ is related to both “movement” and “violence” (33). An Orientalist stereotype is that in the desert there are “free-roaming hordes of nomads” (33). The nomads travels through the desert, looting villages and people. Just like the refugees in Dit zijn de namen already dispose the weaker members of their group of their few possessions before they are even dead (Wieringa 119).
Boer discusses the figure of ‘the nomad’ as it is constituted in Western (feminist) theory; she shows that the “nomadic subject” is idealized, obtaining “fantasmatic overtones” which link it with the concept of the “noble savage” (27, 32). In Wieringa’s novel, the figure of the nomad is transposed from theory to within literature itself, however remaining stereotypical in their movement and violence and idealized in the imagination of police officer Pontus Beg who sees in them the precursors of a new religion. Nevertheless, far more than in the use of the topos of ‘the desert’, the conception of ‘the nomad’ is ambivalent in relation to the novel’s refugees. Analyzing Nina Bouraoui’s La Voyeuse interdite, Boer asserts that this novel is subverting “Western feminism’s joyful figure of liberty and boundary-crossing” (31). Just like the nomadic figure in that novel, the refugees in Dit zijn de namen lack the freedom linked to nomadism. They are driven by a desperate and very material need for money. Searching for means to provide for their families left home, they put their faith in the hands of smugglers who convince them they can get them illegally across the border. But they cannot – they do not even try. Dropped of in the steppe, they not only eventually find out that they did not cross the border because the smugglers faked their border crossing but also they are now illegal (because they burned their passports, Wieringa 103). Thus reduced to ‘bare life’, as emblematic homini saceri, they are the very counterexample of a free nomadic subject*.
The stereotypical figure of the nomad in the desert is juxtaposed by the “sedentary population in the city”, which is exemplified by the dual storyline in Dit zijn de namen (Boer 109). The storyline of the refugees trying to cross the desert is opposed by the storyline of police officer Pontus Beg, who lives in the city Michaelopol. Michaelopol is a city slowly falling into pieces. Although Pontus Beg is representing the legal order, he does not follow the rules. The police, like the government of the city, is corrupt. The city’s residents are living in anonymity, the only thing still driving them is money, which is exemplified by Beg’s visit to the illegal market: “[i]edereen verlangde naar rijkdom, het natuurlijke einde van alle zorgen” (Wieringa 93). This binary opposition residing in the two storylines of the novel – travelling refugees in the barren steppe versus corrupt police officer in a crumbling city, resonates the “dichotomized spatial arrangement” of Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology Boer discusses in Chapter four (117). Like the stereotypical figure of the nomad, the binary oppositions of this nomadic theory are transposed from literary theory into literature itself in Dit zijn de namen. The most important dichotomy of nomadology – smooth versus striated space, are supplemented by some others:
The example of the distinction between smooth and striated space shows that binary oppositions rule nomadology. War machines are opposed to state apparatuses and, analogous to this distinction, so are, in a rendering of Dumézil’s ideas, magician-kings to jurist-priests, despots to legislators; finally, the obscure, violent and fearsome is contrasted with the clear, the calm and the regulated.(Deleuze and Guattari 1992: 351-2 in Boer 117)
Smooth space is related to the topos of ‘the desert’, striated space with the structured and ordered space of the city; therefor the steppe and the city Michaelopol are the novel’s examples of smooth versus striated space (Boer 116-117). As already discussed above, the stereotypical rendering of ‘the nomad’ as violent, and thus as a ‘war machine’, can be related to the representation of the refugees in Dit zijn de namen. Just so, the emphasis on the police force in the novel can be related to the “state apparatuses” of the cities striated space.
Another of nomadology’s oppositions which can be related to the novel is Dumezil’s magician-king versus jurist-priest. In his book Mitra-Varuna, An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty (1988), he explain this “bipartite conception of sovereignty” by discussing numerous examples (Dumézil 17). The magician-king rules by “magical sovereignty”, initiating the religious-political order by violence, while the jurist-priest rules by “juridical sovereignty” and develops his order (characterized by pacts, faith and contracts) in peace (Dumézil 177). Both forms of sovereignty thus have religious aspects, which is resonated in Dit zijn de namen‘s storylines. In the city, Pontus Beg is gradually becoming more and more interested in Judaism. His possible Jewish ancestry can be proved by papers, his acceptance of the Jewish faith is exemplified by the ritual bathing in the mikwe (Wieringa 127; 130). Thus the police officer, ‘ruling’ by a juridical designation, is linked with the contracts and faith of a religion. In the steppe, the refugees develop their own kind of religion. In the last part of their journey, the refugees kill the man from Ethiopia and one of them decides to cut off his head and bring it with them. Then, they find a small village with one house still inhabited.
De vrouw nam het woord, zij verklaarde de verschijnselen voor hen. Sinds de dood van de zwarte en de eerste dromen van de jongen had de tijd zich gedragen als een kameraad; de omstandigheden waren opeens in hun voordeel geweest. De doem die van meet af aan boven hun hoofd meereisde was opgelost en weggeblazen. De beklemming, de steen op hun borst, was verdwenen. Wie wist er een andere oorzaak dan de dood van de zwarte? Zij vond er geen, het was zij dood die hen had verlost. Hij die de beklemming had veroorzaakt, had haar ook weer weggenomen.(Wieringa 260)
So, the refugees start a cult around the ‘magical’ head of the Ethopian, initiated by a violent deed. Therefor, three of the dichotomies of nomadology can be related to the novel: smooth versus striated space; war machines versus state apparatuses; magician-kings versus jurist-priest.
However, not all stereotypical designations of the desert or of the city can be juxtaposed with its opposite. In the storyline of the city, the reader does not only come into contact with Michaelopol’s police officers, but also with the mayor and the unofficial but ruling legislator of the illegal bazar, ataman Chiop (Wieringa 94). However, this cannot be opposed by a “despotic ruler” in the steppe, because the refugees do not have any order at all. Actually, despotism can be related to Michailopol’s mayor:
Het burgemeesterschap heeft Semjon Blok een bijna onbegrensde macht gegeven. Michailopol is zijn privébezit. Hij parkeert zijn zwarte Cadillac Escalade op de stoep, hij rijdt te hard, hij negeert elk stoplicht. Zijn grondbezit is tijdens zijn bewind verdubbeld. Niemand legt hem een strobreed in de weg, hij staat boven de wet.(Wieringa 219)
Mayor Blok’s power is significantly extended during his “bewind” (reign), and he governs without pertaining to any laws. These are stereotypical traits of a despot (Boer 118-119). So, both despots and legislators are situated in the city. The other nomadic dichotomy – the obscure, violent and fearsome versus the clear, calm and regulated – is also lopsided. As is shown by the examples above, the refugees are stereotypical in their obscurity (the cult of the Ethiopian head) and their violence (they kill and mutilate one of them). Besides, they instill fear in each other (they repeatedly rape the woman in their group) and in the city’s residents (when they arrive in Michailopol the police at first does not dare to arrest them, and they cause unrest in the rest of the city; Wieringa 183-190). However, the city cannot be described as “clear, calm and regulated”; it is exactly the opposite – chaotic and disorderly. So, while nomadology’s “dichotomized spatial arrangement” of smooth versus striated space can be employed to elucidate the opposition of the steppe to the city Michailopol, it is also subverted to some extent. The desert-like steppe is represented with more stereotypical elements than the city, which has some of the aspects normally linked with smooth space.
According to Boer, the clashes occurring because of the incompatible dichotomy of ‘the desert’ and the city are “border conflicts” (117). However, this border is not a simple line, but a space in itself (e.g. Boer 117). In his analysis of the actual border between countries, Mark Salter has a similar view of border as Boer’s view of boundaries: borders are performative spaces (Salter 365, 370). In Dit zijn de namen the actual border indeed does not lie between the steppe and the city, but the steppe can be seen as a boundary space. By crossing the steppe, the refugees try to cross the border between their former country and a new country, between a life in poverty and a better life. The steppe in the novel is thus the “allegorical embodiment” of a boundary Boer envisions in her discussion of the desert (108). However, the boundary of the border is not that negotiable as Boer describes it (108). In the end of the novel, this becomes horribly clear when Pontus Beg describes the refugees’ fate to the rabbi:
‘Een grens, jazeker. De vrouw zegt dat ze hem zijn gepasseerd, de jongen heeft barakken, grenswachten, slagbomen en honden gezien. Hij heeft de anderen beschreven wat hij zag. En de anderen hebben het gehoord, mannen en honden, geen twijfel mogelijk. En toch waren ze nergens. Al die tijd hebben ze door een niemandsland gezworven, onder omstandigheden die voor ons niet voor te stellen zijn. […] En dan bereiken ze de bewoonde wereld,’ zei hij. ‘Huizen, auto’s, mensen – en hun ergste dromen komen uit: ze zijn helemaal nooit een grens gepasseerd… Er is geen nieuw land, ze zijn al die tijd gewoon hier geweest!’ ‘Hoe zit het dan met die grens?’ vroeg de rabbijn ongeduldig. ‘De grens?! Er was helemaal nooit een grens! Er was alleen maar het product van een boosaardige verbeelding: een kopie van een grens, een nagebootste grens. Een grens door mensenhandelaren nagebouwd. De echte grens, daar moet je mensen omkopen, geluk hebben – risico’s.’(Wieringa 231-232, emphasis original)
Exactly by emphasizing the “human activity of setting boundaries”, which Boer views as indicating the negotiable nature of boundaries, the novel shows how fictional boundaries such as the border actually have material reality (Boer 74). By juxtaposing the actual border (which is nevertheless a fiction), by a ‘real’ fiction, the novel highlights that although trying to cross the border illegally seems to be an attempt at negotiating or challenging this boundary is it actually the act which visualizes the reifying power of the “spatio-legal” performance of the border (Salter 365). That they do not ask for permission to enter, renders the refugees illegal, and thus they are reduced to ‘bare life’ (Salter 366).
By juxtaposing the city Michailopol with the steppe and thus establishing a ‘contact zone’, Dit zijn de namen emphasizes boundaries and their construction. The Eastern European setting is important here, because the Eastern European region of the Balkans is already considered as contesting border zones between East and West – between the Orient and the Occident (Boer 75). In the novel, the normally Oriental topoi of ‘the desert’ and ‘the nomad’ ánd the normally Occidental city are both placed inside the West – in this case Europe. The Orient is thus inserted into the West. This is exemplified by the novel’s juggling with what is considered “civilization”. Key in the differentiation of civilized and non-civilized is the point of view. At first, the refugees consider ‘over there’, namely the city in the West, as the civilized world they want to live in (Wieringa 14-17). Then, when they discover they did not reach a “nieuw land”, they no longer view the city as civilized (Wieringa 236). Pontus Beg, too, views his city as non-civilized, instead transposing civilization to Israel – which is stereotypically characterized by the reclamation of the desert:
Het [Israel, MO] is een ontwikkeld land. Niet zoals hier. Ze hebben de woestijn ontgonnen, er groeien dadels en druiven en mango’s.(Wieringa 299)
This demarcation of the boundary between the Occident and the Orient in terms of civilization, Dit zijn de namen has in common with the travelogues Boer discusses in Chapter three (77). The all important element of focalisation emphasizes the subjective element of this distinction. The above analysis shows that according to the novel, both Orient and Occident are residing in Europe nowadays. However, civilization is transposed to the outside, to Israel.
By analyzing the representation of the steppe, the immigrant and the border in Dit zijn de namen, I examined to what extent a ‘feedback loop’ concerning Orientalist discourses and their subversion has been established. The novel makes use of the topoi of ‘the desert’ and ‘the nomad’ to describe the European region of the steppe and of the figure of the illegal immigrant. Because of the use of these Orientalist stereotypes, the novel inserts the Orient into the West – into Europe. Besides, it places the non-civilized world inside the European territory, while transposing civilization to the outside. Because of the insertion of the negative stereotypical characteristics of the Orient into a European setting, Dit zijn de namen is able to criticize the contemporary European situation. The refugees in the novel can be described as representing the figure of the illegal immigrant which is reduced to ‘bare life’ by crossing the border without permission. Thus, the illegal immigrant becomes the exemplary figure of contemporary Europe – Europe’s homo sacer. By using the ’empty’ steppe as an allegorical boundary space, the novel is able to highlight the hardship of the immigrant’s ‘bare life’, visualizing the problem Europe has to face.
Although Dit zijn de namen applies the topoi of ‘the desert’ and ‘the nomad’ to emphasize the struggle of contemporary Europe, the topoi are used ambiguously. The desert-like steppe is empty, but not deemed suitable for colonization. The refugees are described by the movement and violence stereotypical of nomads, but are at the same time the counterexample of a ‘free nomadic subject’ because they lack freedom and are on the contrary reduced to ‘bare life’. A ‘dichotomized spatial arrangement’ is set up by juxtaposing the steppe with the city, but the steppe is rendered more stereotypical than the city, which is actually described by the disorder linked in Orientalist discourse with the desert. This ambiguous use of Orientalist stereotyping discourse could be a sign of upcoming subversion.
However, a binary opposition still exist: the steppe is opposed to the city, the refugee to the city’s corrupt resident, and civilization to the non-civilized world. That Dit zijn de namen still uses the old dichotomies and topoi, shows that in the West’s imagination a distinction between “us” and “them” still resides. Although the novel partly reinvents itself by the ambiguous use of the topoi of ‘the desert’ and ‘the nomad’, there nevertheless still remains a binary Occident-Orient. However, by inserting the old stereotype of the non-civilized Orient into the Europe of today, Dit zijn de namen is able to criticize contemporary Europe’s situation by highlighting illegal immigration as its most important problem. Although the distinction remains, the civilized world now lies outside of the West – for European, too, civilization lies ‘over there’.
*In his discussion of the migrant worker, Charles Lee further elaborates on the relation of illegal (that is, having no papers) migrants and the concept of ‘bare life’. Remarkable is that he, too, uses vocabulary resonating the topos of ‘the desert’: he designates “the borderland of unauthorized migration” as a “juridical nonspace” before nuancing the picture of nonsubjectivity and ‘bare life’ of illegal migrants (Lee 63, emphasis MO).
Ik heb dit paper gebruikt voor mijn analyse voor Herwaarns Podcast nr. 2 – vluchtelingenproblematiek. De podcast luister je hier.
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