LIFE ON THE family farm was never all that easy, but lately, for Helmer Van Wonderen, it has become a bittersweet routine enlivened only by a new development: the slow death of his unpleasant old father.
Dad had been a vicious brute in his day, but now, as he waits for death, he is meek, at times even moderately witty, particularly in his obsession with a hooded crow perched in the ash outside his window. Helmer, a candid, world-weary narrator, intent on the truth and possessed of a good memory, is middle-aged and well aware that his life has raced by while he has been milking the cows and counting the sheep. He has had enough, and having carried his father upstairs to Helmer’s old bedroom, is about to make some changes, mainly to the decor.
Gerbrand Bakker’s outstanding debut novel, set in the Dutch countryside, is one of those rare works of fiction that everyone should read. It is full of life and truth, all conveyed through a narrative voice that refuses to allow the reader to turn away for a moment.
From the opening sentence, “I’ve put Father upstairs”, we are in the presence of a laconic narrator who knows what he is about, not only in what he is doing to the farmhouse but also in how he is planning to tell his story. Helmer is likeable, judging from the way the other characters respond to him, and lonely. He has no reason to love, or even like, his father, while his mother, his old supporter, is long dead, as is his twin brother, Henk, who died, aged 19, in a car crash with his girlfriend, the lovely Riet, who was driving and escaped without a scratch.
When Henk died, so did Helmer’s chances of a life away from the farm. Henk, you see, was the farmer; he was his father’s son, his father’s farmhand.
Now Helmer is busy, moving father, moving all the old furniture, photographs and pictures, even the grandfather clock, all the family memorabilia. The old man is demanding a doctor, but Helmer refuses to fetch one. Instead he concentrates on the changes, the removal of carpets and the painting of floors. The old man cries out “sheep” and Helmer waits for the paint to dry until fetching the picture his father wants, “the gloomy painting of a flock of black sheep”. Having settled his father upstairs, Helmer gets busy downstairs, painting the walls and ceiling of what had been his parents’ bedroom white – it’s “my room now”.
Helmer’s various tasks are painstakingly described: “Dragging a grandfather clock up a staircase is a hellish job. I use rugs, pieces of foam rubber and long, smooth planks. Everything inside the case pings and rattles. The ticking of the clock drove me mad . . .”
Helmer has his memories, which together with his ongoing flashback sequences, the visits of the two small boys from the neighbouring farm and an antique map of Denmark (which he buys and begins to memorise), provide some distraction from the nasty business of dealing with his father and his increasingly foul smells.
The children are the sons of Ada and her husband. Ada, a plain, kindly woman, is a good deal younger than Helmer, and likes him. Her approach is semi-flirtatious; all the more touching as she has a harelip. Ada wants to see her not-bad-looking bachelor neighbour get something of a life. She is interested in everything he does, and has to see his redecorating and pass judgment on his colour schemes.
IN ADDITION TO his graceful, understated prose, Bakker demonstrates throughout this brilliant work two abiding gifts, one for establishing a narrative voice of genius, the other for creating vivid three-dimensional characters who emerge off the page. Ada is one of those characters, and it is possible to feel her helplessness in the face of Helmer’s dilemma. She wants to help him, but there is little she can do. Helmer himself develops into a remarkable study of a passive individual conscious of what has happened to his life.
It appears that everything might be about to change with the arrival of a letter. It has come from the past in that it has been written by Riet, the girl who would have been Helmer’s sister-in-law had Henk not died. Riet had been close to the family and had been comforted by Helmer’s mother, but suddenly one day during the week of mourning, his father had finally addressed her: “I want you to go away and never come back.” She leaves and, for more than 30 years, she stays away. But then she sends that letter, and then another.
Riet, now the widow of a pig farmer and the mother of two grown daughters and a much younger son, seems as lonely as Helmer. She wants to visit. Helmer tells her that his father is now dead. Riet arrives, still beautiful, and not for a moment does Bakker allow the narrative to slide either into melodrama or fantasy. The action ebbs and flows and the sense of community and the physical setting are subtly established.
More and more information is released by Helmer, a man not given to moaning but who is nonetheless aware that had his brother not been killed, he would have continued his university studies and escaped from the farm into a very different life. Instead, he knows he is the last of his line, the end of his family.
Now the reappearance of Riet plays its part in this examination of the whims of fate. After all, Helmer and Henk were identical twins, so close that it enraged their father, who resented his sons as representing, as Helmer recalls, “a united front” against him. All the old tensions are slowly revisited and powerfully contrasted against the realities of the present – as a former tyrant now lies in bed waiting for death.
It seems that Riet may be the one to change Helmer’s life. Her visit inspires much speculation, particularly from Ada. When his father, content with the fact that Riet has been told he is dead, asks about the visit, Helmer decides to improvise, telling the old man: “She came for a job interview.”
Nothing is all it seems, and Bakker avoids anything that seems too easy. Darker aspects of the family’s past filter through and a greater sense of the injustices begins to take shape. Beyond the frail body of the old man in the bed is an entire history of cruelty.
ALL THE WHILE, in his own quiet if intense way, Helmer explores the privilege and intimacy of being a twin, and the tragedy caused by the death of your other self. Riet sends a messenger, her troubled son, also named Henk (the boy thinks he has been named after one of his father’s old uncles, not after the youth his mother had been going to marry). The dialogue between the narrator and his young visitor, a most reluctant farmhand, is superb.
This is a novel full of sadness and sly humour as well as moments of bright comedy such as when a visitor, a former family workman, asks Ada’s little boys “Are you farmers too?”, only to be corrected: “We’re kids.”
There are shades of Norwegian Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), yet Bakker’s tone is less elegiac, and closer to wry regret and an unusual cohesion. Always busy in the background, as Helmer’s life appears set to change, is the routine: animals must be fed, milk must be collected. Other changes continue to occur, other lives move on, and the seasons come and go in turn.
Not for nothing is this wonderful novel published by Harvill Secker, which has served, and continues to serve, European literature so well by alerting a wider audience to a Dutch literary masterwork of quiet sophistication. The Twin is a narrative you don’t so much read as experience, one you are unlikely to forget because the inspired Gerbrand Bakker has grasped what should be said, and how much more need only be hinted at.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times
The Twin By Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer Harvill Secker, 283pp. £16.99