The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (Boven is het stil, 2006) translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (2008) Archipelago Books (2009) 343 pp
I started reading The Twin a couple of different times in the last few months. I had a hard time getting beyond the book’s first few painful pages. There Bakker highlights, with subtle but excruciating prose, a son’s cruelty to his aged father (at least, that’s how I read it at the time). I would read a few pages, become entranced by the prose, but then feel the need to put it down for a while — I just wasn’t in the mood (perhaps it was the darkening days of winter, perhaps it was workload) for that kind of blow-to-the-gut pain, no matter how well rendered. But I always knew I’d return to it.
The setting to this book is a very quiet Dutch farm, one that hasn’t changed in years: “‘Look at this farm,’ he said to his friend, a redhead with freckles and sunburnt shoulders, ‘it’s timeless. It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930.'” The narrator, Helmer van Wonderen, lives on this quiet farm, and the year is actually around 2005. In his fifty-five years, Helmer has never moved away from the house he grew up in. Since his mother died over a decade earlier, Helmer has lived alone with his father, who is now ailing. Though there’s been little change in the house through the decades, there is a big change shown on the first page:
I’ve put Father upstairs. I had to park him on a chair first to take the bed apart. He sat there like a calf that’s just a couple of minutes old, before it’s been licked clean: with a directionless, wobbly head and eyes that drift over things. I ripped off the blankets, sheets and undersheet, leaned the mattress and bed boards against the wall, and unscrewed the sides of the bed. I tried to breathe through my mouth as much as possible. I’d already cleared out the room upstairs — my room.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “You’re moving,” I said.
“I want to stay here.”
There’s a cruelty in Helmer’s curtness, born of guilt and resentment towards his father. In the laconic prose there is a fatigue caused by years of carrying weighty bitterness and disappointment. But the passage continues, showing the father a bit more and suggesting some intimacy, perhaps even some strained tenderness, between the father and son.
I let him keep the bed. One half of it has been cold for more than ten years now, but the unslept side is still crowned with a pillow. I screwed the bed back together in the upstairs room, facing the window. I put the legs up on blocks and remade it with clean sheets and two clean pillowcases. After that I carried Father upstairs. When I picked him up off the chair he fixed his eyes on mine and kept them there until I was laying him in bed and our faces were almost touching.
“I can walk,” he said, only then.
“No you can’t.”
Through the window he saw things he hadn’t expected to see. “I’m up high,” he said.
“Yes, that’s so you can look out and see something other than just sky.”
This is not the life Helmer wanted. It is not the life his father wanted. While a teenager, Helmer was attending a university, studying Dutch language and literature. His father made fun of him for working hard to “learn big words,” but to Helmer these were simply routine jabs to his ego — really his father didn’t care what Helmer was up to because at that time Henk, Helmer’s identical twin brother, was still alive.
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.
Henk was supposed to take over the farm, which is just what Father wanted. Knowing this, there are some fascinating family dynamics at play. On the one hand, Father doesn’t care what Helmer does because Henk is there. Helmer, knowing this, does all he can think of to spite his father, to emphasize that he is indeed not his son. His father uses each available opportunity to cut Helmer down.
On April 19th, 1967 I was halfway through the third term of the first year of my Dutch language and literature degree. I think I was the hardest working student in my year, not because of any ambition or drive of my own, but to show Father. I wasn’t eligible for a grant because he had too many assets. That was what it said in the rejection letter from the Ministry of Education and Science, Board of Study Grants, and he and I both knew what those assets were: land, buildings, cows and machines. “Am I supposed to sell cows to send youto university?” said Father, when I showed him the letter. He didn’t wait for an answer but crumpled the letter up without another word and, since there were no bins to hand, threw it in the kitchen sink. If he’d had a lighter or matches on him, he would have set fire to it. Henk was standing in the kitchen too and didn’t know ho to look at me from under his dark eyebrows. Mother retrieved the letter from the sink and tried to smooth it out, then put it in the bin after all.
I love that Father threw the letter into the sink because their was no bin around. What a great image to capture the showy, ridiculous jabs he took at his son. Now that Father is an invalid, Helmer can pay back. Here is one of the more disturbing scenes to me:
After milking, I eat half of the pound of eel on bread. I drink a glass of milk with it. When I’ve finished I go upstairs with an apple. I turn on the light in his room. He is lying on his back with his eyes wide open, the blanket pulled up to his nose. He gives off almost no warmth, the bottom of the window is covered with frost flowers. Maybe he’ll freeze to death in the coming night.
“I’ve got an apple for you,” I say.
“Cold,” he says.
“Yes, it’s freezing.” I lay the apple on the bedside cabinet and leave the room. It’s only on the stairs that I think of a knife. I’m not going back up again, not to take him a knife and not to turn off the light either.
A few pages later (Bakker is great at pacing this book out, letting us linger in pages of silence):
The frost flowers in Father’s bedroom have slid off the window, there’s a pool of water on the windowsill. He ate the apple. I don’t know how he managed it. He must have been very hungry.
Helmer and his father’s relationship was apparently never anything either highly valued. But it was when Henk died, on that April day in 1967, that their lives became linked. Father demanded Helmer stop going to school. Experiencing his own immense grief of losing half of himself, Helmer obeyed.
But this is all just the first bit of the book. The book, while staying controlled and well balanced, is much more complicated. When Henk died, he had a young girlfriend named Riet. In fact, it is her fault Henk died. Nevertheless, after the funeral, Riet passed her days at the van Wonderen household. At the same time that Father told Helmer he wouldn’t be going to school anymore he also told Riet to leave and never come back. Now that decades have passed, Riet finally gets in touch with Helmer. Assuming Father is dead, she’d like to come for a visit. Helmer tells her that, yes, Father is dead. She arrives and, at the end of the visit, says that she’d like it if Helmer allowed her son to work on the farm. Her son is named Henk.
This might sound contrived, but it plays out wonderfully. Bakker is not playing with body doubles here. He is not even, not really, playing with redemption of any kind. These are damaged, tired people. As painful as it is, it’s a wonderous experience to dwell with them for a time.
There’s something ominous in the original Dutch title that doesn’t come across in the completely different title The Twin. Boven is het stil means “It’s quiet upstairs.” Father never makes a racket. But we feel that silence constantly despite whatever is going on downstairs.