What makes identical twins so intriguing is the paradox of sameness and difference together. We imagine that they are the same on the outside but inscrutably different on the inside (though how can we ever know?), or perhaps the same when they start out, until the whims of fate send them down widely divergent paths. Literary twins with a single will and destiny are the exception: witness Sam and Eric, virtually indistinguishable in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. For the most part – and it makes for potent drama – one of the twins is evil, or sick, or kidnapped, or lost, or dead. Then the piquant question is, how does the loss leave the remaining one? Bereft? Devestated? Relieved? Some guilty combination of all three?
The nexus of loss, identity, and destiny is probed relentlesly yet with a rough tenderness in The Twin, a stunning first novel by the Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker. As boys, the twins Henk and Helmer live with their parents on a farm near Amsterdam; they are so cose that “When we touched each other, we touched ourselves. Feeling someone else’s heartbeat and thinking it’s your own, you can’t get any closer than that”.
Helmer is the protagonist, and in his austere, shrewd, and often droll voice, he tells of his desolate life after his brother’s death at nineteen, with finely paced interpolations from their youth. Now fifty-five, Helmer lives with his widowed, bedridden father, caring for him just enough to keep him alive, which, we soon learn, is pretty much what the father deserves, given the way he treated his sons. Helmer’s accounts of washing his father and taking him to the bathroom manage to be both witty and troubling, a hybrid dark tone Bakker excels at. As the novel opens, Helmer moves his father from the downstairs master bedrom to his own small, cold room upstairs. He redecorates and takes over the old man’s imminent death and his own freedom.
The family drama that generates Helmer’s current predicament has a tinge of fable: wicked father; kind but ineffectual mother; identical brothers; death of the favored twin, meaning that “Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice”. Years later, the head brother’s fiancee reappears with a son, also ninteen, also named Henk…As in myth, the same few elements keep recombining.
Aside from terse dialogues with his father, Helmer’s connections are few: there’s the woman from a neighboring farm and her two young sons, with whom he is gruffly companionable; the two tanker drivers who pick up his milk supply; and the livestock dealer who buys his animals. Mostly he’s in the company of the cows and sheep (technically his father’s) and the two useless donkeys he’s fond of (his own). The landscape is minimal as well, described in a pure unadorned prose that suggests a seventeenth-century Dutch painting – simple yet rich and dim with mystery; the old-fashioned farmhouse and sheds, the seasonal shifts in weather, the canal beyond the road leading to the nearest town and to the Amsterdam ferry, All this we get to know well; it’s the kind of novel where you feel you’ve moved in with the characters. Spareness – in style as well as setting – has rarely yielded such abundance.
The young Helmer and Henk were groomed for different paths. Henk, the father’s favorite, is to take over the farm: he has the will and the aptitude. He also has a fiancee, Riet, who will share his future on the land. Helmer, at nineteen, attends university in Amsterdam, studying language and literature. Even beore Henk’s death, he suffers a loss. Until Riet appears on the scene, the brothers enjoy their rare closeness, “shoulder to shoulder…chest to chest…taking each other’s presence for granted.” But with Riiet in his life, Henk no longer wants Helmer sharing his bed.
“Piss off,” he said. Shivering, I walked back to my own bed. It was freezing, the new year had just begun and the next morning the window was covered from top to bottom with frost flowers. We had become a pair of twins with two bodies.
The only one on the farm who seems aware of Helmer as a person in his own right is Jaap, the hired man, who came to work there ten years before, when he too was about nineteen. In his loneliness, the young Helmer takes to visiting Jaap, going swimming with him, drinking beer in his cottage, and drawing sustenance from him. “You’re not your brother,” Jaap reminds him. And, “I don’t know exactly how it works with twins…but I can imagine them having to split up eventually.” He reassures Helmer that he too will one day have an independent life.
“It’ll come,” he said. He checked the trembling of my lip by kissing me on the mouth the way you might kiss your grandfather on the mouth once in your ife when you grandmother has died. “All that will come in time”.
But it doesn’t. What comes instead is the news that Henk has drowned in an auto accident. The car, driven by Riet, was forced off the road by an oncoming vehicle and lands in a canal. Riet escapes, but cannot open the door to release Henk, even with help from passervy: “His hair floated back and forth like seaweed,” she recalls thirty-five years later.
The tragic loss of the brother he loved with a quasi-eroctic attachment leaves Helmer a half-formed adolescent, overwhelmed by grief and uncertain of his place in the world. “I felt that I would be forgotten: Father and Mother were the parents, Riet was the almost-wife, I was just the brother.” His father promptly decides Helmer’s future: “You’re done there in Amsterdam.” Helmer leaves the university to become a farmer, in effect taking over Henk’s life: “A collection of buildings, animals and land I didn’t want anything to do with, an entity that was forced on me, but gradually became part of me.”
This is the kernel of the story: a man “forced” to live a life not his own. What can he make of this life? Helmer knows who he is, as does the reader: his narrative voice is utterly authentic and entrancing in its blend of melancholy and esprit. What he’s never had a chance to discover is what he wants, alterntaives to the unintended life that gradually became part of him.
But was he forced? Did he had a choice? Helmer begins wondering as he watches pieces of his life one by one fall away like a crumbling house: the livestock dealer retires and moves to New Zealand; one of the milk truck drivers dies and the other gets a new route. He never protested his father’s command of thirty-five years ago, Helmer realizes Even the wretched, mean-spirited father, immobilized in his cold bed, says, “You never said anything… You never said you didn’t want to.” The habit of obedience and passivity was reflexive.
The paradigm begins to shift when Helmer receives serveral letters from Riet. What she might want of him at this late date is unclear: forgiveness, absolution, diversion, maybe even marriage? (She married after Henk’s death, but is now widowed.) She asks Helmer to take in her son as a temporary farm hand in an effort to rouse him: the boy lies around all day with no ambition or desire. So again as in myth, the stanger arrives – another nineteen-year-old boy, also named Henk- to disrupt a static situation.
This new young Henk is taciturn but civil, more or less obedient and helpful, and curious about the family history.
“What’s it like, having a twin brother?” he asks.
“It’s the most beautiful think in the world, Henk.”
“Do you feel like half a person right now?”
I want to say something, but I can’t I even need to grab one of the struts to stop myself from falling. I’ve always been forgotten: I was the brother… And now Riet’s son stands opposite me and asks me if I feel like half a person. Henk grabs me by the shoulders; I shake him off.
“What are you crying about?” he asks.
Henk’s identity and role on the arm are ambiguous: not quite a nephew, certainly not a son, not quite a hired man either, though Helmer experiments with treating him like each of these in turn. Helmer is also made neasy by Henk’s coming to sleep in his bed, just as he himself used to curl up in his brother’s bed long ago. The relationship grows more entangled when Helmer nearly drowns in a ditch, smother by a stray sheep, but is rescued in the nick of time by Henk. In Bakker’s tragi-comic vision, even near-disaster can have an absurdist cast. Just as Helmer was always the slower, less graceful twin, his echo of Henk’s death, under a sheep in a ditch, is burlesque in comparison.
Inevitably, Henk goes home and the old father dies, leaing Helmer alone, his future both free and empty. Already he’s feeling the stirring of change: “I’ve been doing things by halves for so long now. For so long I’ve had just half a body… But it’s no longer enough.” Once more as in myth, rescue and renewal come out of the blue as Jaap, the sympathetic hired man of years ago, returns. So happy a coincidence is the only move in the story that feels more willed than organic, but by this time we are so enmeshed, so invested in Helmer’s fate that we accept it as we would a deux ex machina in an ancient drama. The old friendship ripens into what can only be called love, though the word is never used. “Suddenly the time between his departure and return no longer interest me. Or even the time of his arrival. What difference does it make?”
With the whole world at his disposal, Helmer chooses to return to the farm. He finds he can’t part with the sheep, the landscape, or the life that was thrust on him and that he unthinkingly accepted. This wise and impeccably fashioned novel offers a bittersweet illustration of Nietzsche’s Amor fati, to love one’s fate – more bitter than sweet.