Saturday, 22 June 2013

'The Twin' by Gerbrand Bakker (Review)

I'm very keen to take part in blog events for translated fiction, so I was always going to find something for Dutch Lit Fortnight, hosted by Iris on Books.  Surprisingly though, the matter of what to read was also taken out of my hands.  I recently received a copy of The Twin from a kind Twitter follower (@OpShopReading) who had just finished it (thank you!), so when Iris announced that this would be one of the readalong choices, the only thing to do was start reading it ;)

The Twin (translated by David Colmer) was writer Gerbrand Bakker's first novel for adults, and as you can see on the sticker in the picture, it won the IMPAC Dublin Prize in 2010.  It's set in the Dutch countryside, where Helmer, a fifty-something farmer, lives in his family's big, old house, with only his aged father for company.  With his mother and his twin brother, Henk, both long dead, you would think that Helmer would be more friendly to his last remaining family member.  In fact, he appears to harbour deep-seated resentment towards his father, keeping the frail old man locked up in an upstairs bedroom.

The days go by without much change in Helmer's life, despite the changing demands of the seasons - that is, until the farmer begins to suspect that someone is trying to contact him.  A shadow glimpsed outside the house; a ring on the doorbell at night; a phone call where nobody speaks...  Eventually, the stranger announces herself.  The woman trying to summon up the courage to talk to Helmer is Riet - his dead brother's fiancée...

Anyone who has read The Detour, Bakker's IFFP-winning novel, will be on familiar ground with The Twin.  The setting is very similar (if much less hilly), and the central premise of a life interrupted by a chance visitor is too.  However, The Twin is a slower, less urgent book than The Detour, and Helmer is a very different character to Emilie.  This is a man who never really wanted to take over the family farm, and only tragic circumstances have forced him to stay.  Now, he spends his time feeding the cows, checking on the sheep and making polite conversation with the neighbour's wife when she drops by.  There is little evidence of anything else in his life.

Of course, Helmer does have a past, and it is one of missed opportunities, one life cut short and another twisted to take its place.  Part of his resentment towards his father stems from this insistence that Helmer stay on the farm.  The son's dreams of escape, studying literature in the big city and creating a life that doesn't involve cow shit, dissolve in the harsh reality of his brother's death.  It's little wonder that he feels bitter.

Still, the father is not the only one in Helmer's bad books.  Riet, a woman he hasn't seen for decades, is also partly responsible for his situation (as the reader soon finds out).  Quite what her motivation is to send her son, coincidentally called Henk, to work as a hand on Helmer's farm, I'm not really sure.  In any case, in agreeing to take the young man on, Helmer further disturbs his tranquil existence.  After all, Henk is almost family:
"Henk is actually a kind of nephew, I think when I close the door to the stairs and see him standing there.  He is pulling on his overalls, the ones with the crotch that rides up, the sleeves that are too short and the tear in one armpit.  A half-nephew, a could-have-been-nephew, a nephew-in-law."
p.192 (Scribe, 2011)
Just as Bradwen interrupts Emilie's solitude in The Detour, Henk the younger makes Helmer reflect on his life and his relationship with his father.  Perhaps it's time for a change - if only it isn't too late...

The Twin is an interesting book, and with its stripped-back style, it's an easy read too.  I'd have to say though that, contrary to what I've read elsewhere, it doesn't really reach the heights of The Detour.  I much preferred the poetry of that book, the majestic peaks of the Welsh countryside and the hidden depths of the main character.  By contrast, Helmer (and the setting) can come across a bit flat...

However, while The Twin is fairly slow-moving, that's not to say that there's nothing going on beneath the surface.  The story is nicely book-ended by the fleeting visits of canoeists paddling past the farm, and while the image the canoeists have is of an unchanging part of the scenery, the reader is aware that a lot has happened in those few months.  Some people have died, others have moved on, and Helmer's life has been changed for good - and perhaps for the better.

On finishing the book, I had a good think about what else was hidden between the pages, and one theme that kept coming to mind, one I haven't seen mentioned much elsewhere, is Helmer's sexuality.  While it would be jumping to conclusions to pigeon-hole a single middle-aged man as gay (or to assume that studying literature in Amsterdam was code for coming out...), there's enough here to make you wonder.  A lot is made of his sleeping naked in the same bed as his brother (and then the other Henk), and his relationship with the farmhand Jaap also has a slight sense of sexual tension (swimming naked, kisses on the lips).

Overthought?  Perhaps?  Important?  Perhaps not.  The reason the idea keeps coming back to me though is that it helps to explain the antagonism between Helmer and his father, one which seems too strong to be put down to the decision to keep Helmer on the farm.  For me, it's an added layer to the story, one which gives Helmer a depth he'd otherwise lack.  Does anyone out there agree, or am I barking up the wrong tree here?  Comments are always welcome ;)