The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
It’s quite a feat to win a major prize with your first novel, but that’s what The Twin did, taking the prestigious IMPAC Award in Dublin back in 2010.
Henk and Helmer are twins – identical in features, but with very different characters. When they were 19 in 1967, Helmer was studying at university in Amsterdam while Henk, the younger twin, was learning to be a farmer. Henk had a fiancée, Riet, and she was driving in the accident that killed Henk. Helmer had to give up university to take on the farm. The boys’ father never forgave Riet and she left. Helmer never forgave his father for making him come back or for preferring Henk.
It’s now 35 years later and Helmer is in his fifties. He subsists. Beyond food shopping, he doesn’t go out, he looks after their small flock of sheep, their few cows, chickens and his pair of beloved pet donkeys. His mother had died years ago, but his aged father lives on, bedridden, ‘breathing and talking. Even now, here, I can hear him muttering.’ As the novel starts, Helmer has decided to move his father upstairs into the bedroom there, out of the way, perchance to die. When a letter from Riet arrives, Helmer panics – he tells her his father is dead. She comes to visit.
‘Hello Riet,’ I say.
Very old fury, a fury I can’t remember having, whose existence I didn’t even suspect, rises up inside me. Riet isn’t troubled by fury. I can see that. She is moved and confused, that’s what’s troubling her. The longer Henk is dead, the more I look like him, simply because there is no longer any comparing.
No, fury is too big a word, outrage is closer.
The purpose of her visit is to ask if her teenaged son could come and stay with him for a while, to be a farm hand; he’s called Henk. Helmer can’t refuse, he can manage on his own, but the help would be useful, and so Helmer finally gets a chance to be a father-figure to someone. Young Henk will soon be ready to go out into the world for himself and it percolates through to Helmer what he’s missed, if only his father would hurry up and die.
The relationship between Helmer and his father is a complex one – no love lost between them at one moment, then something there the next. The pair have essentially colluded in a sort of mutual neglect over the years with the father stubborn and Helmer quietly resentful, wondering why his father had preferred his brother when they were twins. Thirty-five years of this! You have to feel sorry for Helmer.
The cover is initially entrancing, evoking a rural farming idyll but it wraps around the back too and that’s all you see, the vast flat expanses of the Dutch polders reclaimed from the sea. The novel, too, evokes this flat, almost featureless land. It could be a solitary life, farming here. Helmer is lucky to have one neighbour, Ada, who keeps an eye on him; her young sons love the donkeys. Yet it seems that Helmer goes out of his way to be solitary – he doesn’t try to make friends with the regular milk lorry driver for instance. He’s grumpy about his whole existence here – you just long for him to be freed from it.
Although a little drawn out in the middle, this novel was a compelling read. I had to find out what happened to Helmer and what his future would hold, the ending when it comes is entirely appropriate. The text is not all grim, there is a certain dry humour to the writing. In style it is spare, yet there is much to read between the lines as you get to know Helmer. It’s a stunning debut novel in a wonderful translation from a writer to look out for. (9/10)
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Source: Own copy.
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The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, trans David Colmer. (2009, Vintage, paperback, 288 pages).