Fiction – paperback; Atria International; 198 pages; 2020. Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder.
Marjolijn van Heemstra, is a Dutch poet. Her beguiling novella In Search of a Name feels like a memoir but is actually a fictionalised account of her family history.
In this tale, originally published in the Netherlands in 2017, the narrator is a woman called Marjolijn, who is pregnant and trying to determine her unborn son’s name.
She has inherited a signet ring that belonged to her great uncle — a hero of the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War — and has promised her late grandmother, who bestowed it her, that she would name her firstborn after him.
But while Marjolijn likes the grand-sounding name — Frans Julius Johan — her partner, D, isn’t so sure. He challenges the idea of naming their baby after a man that neither of them knows very little about, apart from a story that’s been handed down within the family and may or may not be true.
D is right again. What I know can be summed up in a single sentence: Resistance hero delivers a parcel bomb disguised as a Sinterklaas present to an ex-Nazi.
I write “bomb”, but according to the family narrative, the bomb was always a “little bomb”, the Blackshirt was a “rat”, and Bommenneef [the nickname for her great uncle] “a rascal”. It was my grandmother’s generation that kept the tale alive, repeating it every chance they got, to whoever would listen. Rascal startles rat with bomblet.
Reads like a crime thriller
What follows is a highly personal detective story that reads like a historical crime thriller as Marjolijn seeks to find out the truth about her great uncle. Were his actions heroic? Or is there a darker side to the tale?
Her research takes her across the country — and even to Spain — as she tracks down leads and hunts out clues. She meets distant relatives, befriends fellow researchers working in the national archives and finds herself immersed in confidential dossiers, biased news stories and incomplete paperwork.
My irritation grows with every step. Why didn’t anyone take the trouble just to write down what happened? Why must I now make do with a couple of barely legible Ausweises and a pile of junk from a desk drawer? A bomb exploded, people were killed and men were sent to jail, lives were compromised, and all that’s left is this two-bit legend full of holes and cracks.
Working to a deadline
The book is structured around Marjolijn’s growing pregnancy — each chapter is headed with the number of weeks to go before her baby’s arrival — to hammer home the point that she’s working to a deadline.
Further suspense is created by the growing tension within Marjolijn’s relationship with her partner and her decision to ignore health advice when she is diagnosed with high blood pressure as a possible precursor to eclampsia.
When it looks likely that the birth may have to be induced, Marjolijn’s sense of panic is heightened, not by the birth itself, but at the lack of time to determine if her great uncle’s name is worthy of being handed down.
[…] my son has to be given the right name, and to do that I have to have the right story, and since the story I had turns out to be inaccurate I have to at least come up with a good ending — all’s well that ends well — but at the moment I am stuck in a cul-de-sac of unanswered emails and Facebook messages and I haven’t put anything right or even gotten my head around things, there are only questions that lead to more questions, I don’t even know any more if this is about courage and justice, who knows, maybe now it’s about chaos and regret.
Who knew that a story about research methods could be so exciting?
What I liked most about In Search of a Name is the way the author teases out the blurred lines between fact and fiction, where nothing is as black and white as it might seem, and where family mythology, passed down from generation to generation, gains potency — and embellishment — over time.
At its heart, this novel is about truth and the ways in which it can become obfuscated, whether by accident or design.