David Colmer, Translator
(Archipelago Books)Helmer van Wonderen is a Dutch farmer, living with his dying father and the ghost of his twin brother. He's a stolid man whose proudest accomplishment has been to buy two donkeys ("they are mine") and keep the farm out of the hands of the state ("The Forestry Commission") and to have survived for over a half-a-century.
Helmer's twin brother Henk died in a car wreck when they were nineteen. Helmer says of his brother, "Henk was the farmer. Henk was Father's son."
What he was supposed to make of me or what I was supposed to make of myself were questions he could ignore.
What the reader is supposed to make of Helmer is an open question as well. The tale opens when Helmer moves his father upstairs. The old man can no longer walk, cannot even get to the bathroom by himself, so he puts him upstairs where there are no accommodations.
He offers him a little to eat every now and then. An apple, a bit of cheese. The title in Dutch Boven is het stil is, as one critic suggested, quite sinister: "It's quiet upstairs."
Forty years after the fact, the woman who killed his twin calls, asks Helmer if he can take care of her son, also named Henk. Henk II is your typical feckless juvenile: he wants to spend the morning in bed, the afternoon in the kitchen eating, and all night watching television. Like all juveniles, Henk II is a champion pouter. Helmer takes him on.
§ § §
It's a tale with an elegant plot-line, a wonderful writing style, and a spare, elegantly encapsulated dialogue ... often funny, always revealing. These Dutch farmers, I assume, tend to be laconic. This is Helmer with Henk II:
He took the packet of cigarettes from the bedside cabinet and lit one, blowing the smoke up at the open window.
"I'd rather you didn't do that," I said.
"No doubt," he said. And then, in a different tone, "I hear noises, at night."
"What kind of noises?"
"Animals. At least I hope so."
"That's no reason to be frightened, surely?"
"Short, high-pitched yapping noises."
"That's the coots."
"It drives me up the wall. And your father coughs in bed."
"Is that so terrible?"
"I feel sorry for him," he said quietly.
"Go and sit with him sometimes."
Again he looked at me as if I'd asked him to lay out a dead body.
§ § §
Being twinned. That's one of the themes. Alone on the farm with the animals and a dying (and laconic) father is another. Intergenerational, often silent, battles. Old loves, twisted in fantasy. Men who may or may not love other men ... but who are sure they shouldn't. Strange animals (a hooded crow figures prominently in The Twin). Life and dying.
Last month, we reviewed another book from Archipelago, The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. We tried to address the vexing question of writing about someone who has a dull life ... how to make it interesting. We wondered how you could write a book about a fifty-seven year old waiter in a Paris café and not put us to sleep. How do you make the reader care, much less go on until we get to the end. We weren't so sure that Fabre's Waitress succeeded. But Bakker, in The Twin, has solved that problem, and in a most diverting way.
The boy asks Helmer --- cheekily, I might add --- about what it was like being one of two. "It must be weird," he says, "Having a twin brother. Someone who's exactly like you."
He lights his cigarette.
I get up off the chair and open the window a little wider.
"Exactly the same body..."
The duvet has slipped down a little, baring his chest. A smooth young chest with a timorous heart. He blows out a cloud of smoke. Not at the window, but straight in my face.
He talks about his fear (of, for instance, summer). "With a twin brother that's not a problem. You're always together."
Helmer recalls his brother: "We did not have any difficulty at all in merging like a pair of Siamese twins."
I no longer had a sense of my own skin, my own muscles, my own bones.
Henk II ends up climbing in Helmer's bed. "Am I a kind of Henk now." "Maybe," Helmer thinks, "This is what you have to do in return for someone saving your life." (Henk II has just saved Helmer from drowning). He recalls a poem,
I sometimes see myself
in mirror or in windowpane
just after I've seen you
my own half body.
Then: "I wasn't entirely relaxed in the first place, but now I feel even more tension entering my body. I know what he's getting at but I don't answer."
"Well?" he says. "Am I a kind of Henk?"
"What do you mean?" I ask cagily.
"Your brother. Am I like your brother now?"
And Helmer thinks, after he had spent a night in the sack with this new Henk, "Something is going badly wrong here. When did this start? 'No,' I say."
The assumption. That twin boys will, at some time or another, love each other ... in a way that is, well, well under the covers. "My shoulder blades are itching with annoyance," thinks Helmer.
"If you ask me I am," the boy says, half asleep, "A kind of Henk." "Kind" is a potent word. Kind, kindred. Kinder. Helmer loved his twin. And now there is this other Henk. Making suggestions.
"How does he do it?" Helmer wonders. "Asking Father how the dying is going, as if he's asking him if he'd like some more gravy on his potatoes." One doesn't talk thus to a man who forty years ago lost his one great love, a love that may not speak its name.
Within a short time, Henk II is gone from the lonely farm in Waterland.
Helmer van Wonderen is a Dutch farmer. He lives with his dying father, twenty-three sheep, twenty cows, and two donkeys ... not far from Amsterdam. At fifty-five, you do not ask him about his beloved brother, dead these many years. And you certainly do not ask, "Am I a kind of Henk?"
Even if you are a kind of Henk, you do not ask that.--- Carlos Amantea