California Literary Review

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

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May 27th, 2009 at 10:24 am

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The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
The Twin
by Gerbrand Bakker
Archipelago Books, 250 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

The Silence Above

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Helmer Van Wonderen is one of them.

Helmer is the narrator of Gerbrand Bakker’s intriguing novel, The Twin, and there is something so peculiarly Northern European about his tale that one has a hard time trying to describe it without quoting half the book.

Deceptively plain in its phrasing, almost lethargic in its pace, The Twin is about as flat as the Dutch landscape in which it’s set.

Yet lurking in the white spaces is something one can sense, if not pin down precisely. A moody sense of colors – of grey and blue – of silvery insights breaking through a dull day, and of moving between the modern world and a rural life untethered to minutes. It’s a novel in which almost nothing profound is said and you still come away chewing ruminatively on its contents.

Helmer makes his living working his small family farm, and both he and the land appear to be trapped in a kind of aspic. The cows come in, the sheep go out, yet life has changed little since the day his twin brother Henk died in a car accident thirty years ago:

Their paddles slapped against the yellow water lilies. The canoe in front turned sideways and got trapped with its nose against the bank of the canal. The lad glanced up. “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.”

Helmer is not completely alone – he has an aging, ailing father he detests – and it is this relationship that gives shape to the narrative. Indeed, his very first words to us are:

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.

Helmer would like nothing better to be rid of this authoritarian figure, but, like the plague victim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the old man isn’t quite dead yet. He lingers on in the bedroom surrounded by objects Helmer associates with the past and is watched over, Poe-like, by a hooded crow in an ash tree.

Downstairs it is different. Downstairs Helmer has stripped the place down to its bones, attempting to obliterate a time when his adored brother Henk was alive and the favorite to take over the farm.

Of course, Bakker won’t let him forget (it would be a pretty short story if he did). Instead, in the course of his everyday chores, Helmer remembers key events. A trip to the Gouw Sea to drive on ice two and half feet thick, where his father dared not drive past the embankment. A meeting in a pub when Helmer first caught sight of Henk’s new girlfriend, Riet.

Moving his father upstairs was the first catalyst of change for Helmer. The reappearance of Riet is the second. The driver of the car in which Henk drowned, she turns up with a request that Helmer take care of her problematic son for a while. Though unrelated to the original by blood, she has named him Henk.

“And?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think of it?”

He looks around with a rather gloomy expression. “It’s all a bit bare.”

The younger Henk’s observation is spot on. Just because someone new has entered the picture, Bakker is not about to allow the bare bones of his book be padded with fatty emotion. Henk’s arrival does not miraculously heal the loss Helmer feels for his brother, nor do they come to some kind of rapturous reunion with Riet. Riet, we learn in just one example of Bakker’s dry humorous touches, can be awfully tetchy. Instead there is something subtler happening. As the younger Henk begins to visit the old man in the bed, and as we learn more about Helmer’s relationship with the farmhand Jaap, the past begins to slide seamlessly into the present.

New Henk. Old Henk. At times, we have no idea which is which. And the harder it becomes to distinguish between the two, the more we sense Helmer is on the point of finally severing himself from his twin.

Again, it is the slight, seemingly unimportant, incidents that serve as guideposts to this change. The crow attacks Henk. Henk tries to shoot it on the orders of the old man. Helmer almost drowns trying to pull a sheep out of a ditch and Henk hauls him out – a ghostly reminder saving a ghost of a life.

All of these events change Helmer. But before he can truly go forward, he has to deal with the man in the bed.

The original title of The Twin was Boven is het stil, loosely translated in my appalling stab at Dutch to “Above it is silent” and I think this would have been a better title. For though Henk may have defined Helmer’s sense of self, it is his father who helped trap him into his strange suspended existence:

“I did my best,” he says.

“And I didn’t?”

“Of course you did. We all did.” There’s a lot more life in him now than there was this morning.

“Where’s Henk?”

“I don’t know. Outside, I think”

A nothing conversation. A banal narrator. A realism built of crows, cows and donkey manure. Against the odds, against your own expectations, it all works.

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