Netherlands: nature talks

When you’re reading lots of books from different countries, stories from contrasting backgrounds can often seem to be talking to each other across the globe. Soon after finishing Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s The Sickness, with its memorable description a doctor’s struggle to accept his father’s terminal illness, I began Gerbrand Bakker’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning The Twin. The novel was recommended by Dutch literature translator Michele Hutchison, who lives in Amsterdam, and it showed me a startlingly different filial response to a parent’s approaching death.

Having lived and worked on the family farm all his life, late-middle-aged Helmer finds that his father’s illness is the catalyst he needs to stop ‘hiding behind the cows and letting things happen’. With the power dynamics in their relationship turned upside down, he begins to exert control over the house and business. But when his dead twin brother Henk’s former fiancée and her uncannily named son Henk get in touch, Helmer is forced to confront his emotional stuntedness and the toll his narrow existence has taken on his ability to function in society.

Bakker’s writing is extraordinarily good, complemented, no doubt, by David Colmer’s excellent translation. Where most books confined to such a small number of locations and incidents feel static and wooden, this one throbs with a quiet fury that imbues even the smallest of actions with significance. We watch Helmer select his new bed, paint the living room and buy an antique map in the local town, feeling behind each deed the weight of decades of unexpressed anger, loss and grief.

Bakker heightens this sense of reticence through his spare style, which enables him to capture and express powerful impressions in very few words. This, coupled with his deft deployment of descriptions of the natural world to reveal the extent of Helmer’s isolation, enable him to walk the delicate line between his protagonist’s disturbing and often deliberately cruel treatment of his father and the slow unfolding of his blighted life.

In addition, the narrative’s strange beauty and the humour that gusts up suddenly to catch you unawares enable it to meander through profound themes without any pretentiousness. Its subtle exploration of what it means to be a twin and the sad echoes of the breezy predictions people make to adolescents about what life has in store for them will stay with me for a long time. Marvellous.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Vintage, 2009)

15 responses

  1. When I was in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, I was recommended to read the works of Harry Mulisch. I’ve read The Discovery of Heaven which was amazing and involved angels, WW2, free will discussions and so much more. I also bought The Assualt which is about a massacre of a family near the end of WW2. Mulisch is definitely a highly recommendable Dutsch author – if you ever find the time. 🙂

  2. Hey there. I love your blog, keep it up! As to literature from Holland, Mulisch is indeed one of the most famous writers my country has ever known. I have to admit though that I have never read anything written by him, probably because everyone knows all his work, which somehow makes me reluctant. That’s a shame, because The Discovery of Heaven is said to be magnificent. Maybe I should start soon 😉 I would like to give you some other another tip though, a book written by a somewhat younger writer. It is called ”The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi” by Arthur Japin. He is one of the best Dutch writers, if you ask me. In this novel, based on a true story, he tells the story of two little princes from Ghana who are granted to Holland as a gift. It’s about the Holland’s slavery-history, a subject very complex and one we are generally not very proud of. The original title is: ”The black with the white heart”. It really is a breathtaking novel. The writers describes the feeling of this two boys (who both react differently to their stay in Holland) in a way I have never encountered before in any novel.
    His other work is also very worth reading, for example the novel he wrote about the life of the dance legend Vaslav. Looking forward to your next post!

  3. Hi,
    I’m from holland myself and there are some books you shouldn’t miss! For instance, you have W.F Hermans – The dark room of Damocles. It’s a good book. kind of hard to understand but once you’ve read it a very good book!
    You also have the books of Arnon Grunberg ( some of his best books are Tirza and a book called Skin and Hair ) They are amazing and I think they are books you shouldn’t miss!
    Hope you will read them, although you already passed Holland.

  4. One of my facourit Dutch writers and frequently mentioned as a candidate for a Nobel Price in literature is Cees Nooteboom. You should really read Rituals or All Souls’ Day. I read them every year all over again and discover again and again how mutch I love this author.

  5. Pingback: In één jaar lezen de wereld rond | Nelleke Groot

  6. And on a more personal note, within the combination of the Netherlands & nature, I would very much like to recommend ‘Amsterdam Stories’ by Nescio, written at the beginning of the 20th century and still unique in its poetic mood and style: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/amsterdam-stories/. Furthermore, Gerard Reve’s gloomy and funny ‘De avonden’, set in the Amsterdam of the 1950’s (no nature here), should really be translated into English: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/oct/27/dutch-are-coming/ The book has been translated though into German, French, Spanish etc.

  7. Wauw, it’s amazing you’ve red all these books from different countries. I’m from the Netherlands, but didn’t know the name Gerbrand Bakker. The names they say above are all fantastic writers. Arthur Japin is beautiful and also The dark room of Damocles from Hermens is something you should read if you ask my Dutch teacher.

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful project with us and good luck with reading all these books. It’s really amazing what you do. I think you inspired a lot of people. At least you inspired me to learn better English, because reading good English makes your so much wider.

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