The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (trans. David Colmer). Archipelago Books. 250pp, $25.00.
In contemporary literary fiction, a spare, restrained prose style is anything but rare. What is rare, however, is to find a stylistic simplicity used with such clear intention and, ironically, with such subtlety as is found in Gerbrand Bakker’s novel The Twin. Originally written in Dutch, and skillfully translated by David Colmer, the novel has all the careful observation and and delicate shading of a painting by one of the Dutch masters–Bakker sees beauty and complexity in the smallest corners of everyday life and portrays them with a quiet mastery that gives his story both great weight and great lightness.
The book begins when the protagonist, a middle-aged man named Helmer van Wonderen, moves his dying father from his bedroom on the main floor of the family farmhouse to a small room upstairs. At our introduction to him, Helmer seems cold, perhaps even cruel in his treatment of the weak old man, and the relationship between the two is unclear. The use of farm imagery, which provides a consistent, rhythmic background to the book, begins in the second sentence with this description of Helmer’s father: “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’s unfeeling treatment of his helpless father, including his flat refusal to call a doctor when asked, makes the reader immediately cautious of him. Our understanding is quickly complicated a few pages later with a very matter-of-fact description of the old man ridding the farm of a litter of feral kittens by repeatedly backing them over with a car. With only the slightest change in tone, we are able to see the old man through Helmer’s eyes, and our perception of the dynamic between the two changes entirely. From a helpless calf, the old man is transformed into the kind of person who would muster his dwindling strength to exterminate an animal in an unnecessarily cruel way—saying “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” and wearily wiping his hands in a “one-chore-out-of-the-way gesture.”
This sort of delicate irony and the use of quick, demonstrative exposition to describe complicated emotions and relationships is illustrative of Bakker’s technique throughout the novel. The real story begins thirty years earlier, when Helmer’s twin brother Henk is killed in a car accident shortly before his marriage to a woman named Riet. The tragedy has a devastating effect on Riet and the family, but changes Helmer’s life in particular. As a twin, he has twice lost what he feels to be half of himself–first to a woman, and finally to death. In one particularly vivid image from his youth, Helmer describes the sense of being one with his twin. In the memory, his father is contemplating the daredevil feat of driving the car over a frozen lake, and the twins take courage from their unity:
Father didn’t know how thick the ice was past the embankment. While he sat there sighing, we crept even closer together on the back seat until we were like Siamese twins joined from the sides of our feet to our shoulders. If father was brave enough for the big adventure, we would face it as one man, without fear, silently. Father started the car, it didn’t turn over until the fourth or fifth attempt. I no longer had any sense of my own skin, my own muscles, my own bones. . . . It was only when we saw that Mother could see us, just before Father drove the car up the boat ramp in the harbor, that we let go of each other and became Henk and Helmer again.
After his brother’s death Helmer’s father forbids him to continue his studies in Amsterdam (an endeavor for which his father clearly had nothing but scorn), and summons him home to take his brother’s place on the farm. The double loss of his twin and his freedom create a deeply buried frustration that the events of the book brings to the surface.
Part of the power of Bakker’s writing is his immaculate sense of rhythm and timing. When the book opens, the reader has the feeling that she is entering a closed world with a slow, steady tempo–a passing character comments in one scene that the farm is “timeless. It’s here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930.” The feeling of stagnancy, that the characters are simply shells of human beings who have been going through the same changeless routine for decades lies heavy. The book, however, begins with a significant change–Helmer physically moving his father into a new room, exiling him from the life of the house. This change precipitates other changes; at first seemingly superficial changes, such as Helmer redecorating house, soon give way to larger ones when a letter arrives from Riet, who has not been heard from since Henk’s death. Riet’s son–whom she named after Henk–comes to stay with Helmer, disrupting his aloneness and stirring up complicated memories and questions for Helmer about the relationship he had with his brother and the rupture his brother’s death posed to Helmer’s own ambitions.
From small changes, an avalanche of motion occurs and the tempo steadily increases into a powerful accelerando, which is nonetheless tempered by the unrelenting quietude of the prose. Bakker uses this spare style with a palpable sense of purpose. Detailed observations of nature and the rural setting are contrasted with a bare minimum of information at the very moments of highest drama, which manages to actually heighten rather than diminish the impact. A scene as banal as the donkey shed on an average night, for instance, is given an attention which brings it vividly close:
The donkey shed looks beautiful. It’s stopped snowing, the sky has cleared and the moon is almost full. The snow on the roof is about three inches thick and nicely rounded at the edges. It’s just below zero, but I don’t think the frost will last till morning. I put some hay in the rack and sit down on the bales. In the light cast by the lamp I see my own footsteps walking here from the cowshed.
By contrast, when we are first told about the day of Henk’s death, little is described. Helmer tells us that he was riding his bike home on a windy day; then that his “Mother was sitting in the kitchen, alone. ‘Henk’s dead,’ she said.” All other details are reserved for later, giving the reader the full impact of the shock Helmer himself experienced. The simplicity of the writing also keeps the book from feeling overdone or trite–the story is straightforward and the characters’ actions and emotions are always displayed within the framework of the everyday. Although the story digs at the complex, deep-seated tensions of family relationships, the scale is more human, even ordinary, than it is epic.
Despite this human scale, Bakker lends The Twin a slightly mythical quality and avoids any feeling of mundanity with his use of recurring symbols and imagery. The symbols, are usually nature-related, like a hooded crow that comes to roost outside the dying father’s window. Such symbols are certainly hard to miss, but they escape the danger of feeling heavy-handed because, like the characters themselves and the changes they undergo, their meanings remain ambiguous. In this way, they become more cipher-like motifs than representative entities. This visual repetition, as well as some use of exact verbal repetition, also adds a poetic quality to the writing. Words themselves certainly hold great power for the characters. Helmer, for example, often incants the names of places from a map of Denmark, as a sort of calming ritual before he goes to bed. The words, meaningless to Helmer in themselves, as they represent places he has never been to, are nonetheless beautiful and transportive:
I close my bedroom door and go over to stand in front of the map of Denmark. “Helsingor,” I say. “Stenstrup, Esrum, Blistrup, Tisvildeleje.” Five names spoken slowly are not enough tonight. I do a few extra islands. “Samso, Aero, Anholt, Mon.”
Within the simplicity of Bakker’s language, some sentences stand out, ringing with many levels of meaning. The words “I can at any time,” for example, echo strongly for Helmer, and indeed for the entire book. Although when spoken these words remind Helmer of his emptiness, they can ultimately be seen as a realization of his freedom. It is indicative of the fineness of the novel that it is in sentences of such brevity that the watershed moments occur.
In more than just symbolism, it is the quality of ambiguity that makes The Twin intriguing and powerful. The story is painted with a palette of misty grays, yet there is a subtle optimism in the possibilities of what we cannot see just beyond these mists. Helmer is a difficult protagonist, sometimes undemonstrative or stubborn, and other times generous or hopeful. The other characters likewise go through similar swings in the reader’s sympathy. It is in this that the true realism of the book consists–the characters are as realistically illogical and unpredictable as any human being. Their actions are not imbued with meaning–they simply act.
The book comes to an unexpected end, and one that does not promise a clear future for Helmer. The unceasing rhythms of rural life only serve to underscore the changes that have occurred–Helmer and his farm no longer seem stagnant or timeless, yet exactly what it is that has changed within his life and heart is difficult to define. The reader is left with a strong sense of new possibility, but the changes are small and undramatic, organic rather than message-laden. It is a testament to Bakker’s fine craftsmanship that Helmer’s delayed realization of selfhood and healing from the thirty-year-old wound of his twin brother’s death can bring the narrative to momentous resolution.
It is refreshing to find a book at once so engaging and intelligent, and in which stylistic simplicity is used with grace and effectiveness. David Colmer’s translation brings the Dutch into English in a way that is colloquial and familiar-feeling without losing a pleasant sense of foreignness. The Twin cannot be said to be innovative, yet it is unique and surprising in the depth it finds in a quiet tale of pastoral realism. The maxim “less is more,” is often used as an excuse for what is simplistic rather than simple, but in this case Gerbrand Bakker has truly created a tour de force.
Anne Posten is a German-language literary translator based in San Francisco.
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