Sunday, 8 May 2011
The narrator of this novel, Helmer, is the remaining half of a set of identical twins and much of him died with his twin Henk. Henk would have worked on the farm with their father and taken it over in time. Helmer had been studying literature in Amsterdam, but when Henk dies his father decides that that is over ("you're done there in Amsterdam")and Helmer spends the next three and a half decades drowning.
His mind seems to be lost between what was and what might have been while his body carries out all the actions required to keep the small farm going.
"'We don't have TV here', I say.
'What? What do you do at night?'
'Read the newspaper, do the paperwork, check the animals.'
'Uh-huh. Nitrate records, health records for the vet, quality control records for the dairy ---'"
The loneliness of sons burdened with the family farm and living with their parents well into their adult life is very familiar in Ireland, and is beautifully realised. The economy of expression in the narrative voice seems very true and the routine of the days is clearly drawn.
The equilibrium of this life is eroded by the ill health of Helmer's father. His mother has already died and Helmer seems to be taking his revenge on his father, moving him upstairs and paying him very little attention.
Then there is a visitation from the past that shakes the foundations even further. The woman who was his twins fiancee contacts him. When he had originally seen Henk with her it was as if he suffered separation from his twin, who was almost part of him. "Henk saw me there -at the back of the group, while he was talking to the drunk youth and keeping Riet's hand firmly clasped in his - and wasn't able to look me in the eye. That had never happened before." "I broke away from the group and and turned down a lane ... About a hundred yards later I put a hand on a damp wall and spewed up all the beer and doughnuts. Then I went off in search of my bike, finally finding it where we had started our pub crawl. Someone had let off fireworks between the spokes of the back wheel. I hoisted the bike up onto one shoulder and walked home, swapping the bike back and forth between my right and left shoulders on the way. I licked drops of water off the bell to get the dirty taste out of my mouth."
The last sentence fixed this passage in my mind, dredging some buried memory of my own and bringing the taste of water and metal to my tongue.
This is a spare, realistic novel and a poetic fable merged into one. It keeps reminding me of Don Quixote. There are donkeys, a windmill and Helmer is clearly missing his Sancho. However, his mind has been led astray not by reading too many books (a la Quixote) but by not reading at all. His horizons have narrowed and he does not go South - where his twin died and the memories of Amsterdam threaten to break the ice in which he has buried himself.
Ice indeed, is one of the key images in the novel, alongside a hooded crow and an old map of Denmark. When the canals freeze over, Helmer is eager to get out and skate and a key scene from the past involves driving on frozen water. He remembers learning to skate and it is something of his own, not shared with Henk. "We did everything together, Henk and I, except skating."
This book has left some haunting images burnt into my mind and I am glad for the recognition brought by the Impac prize which is what led me to it. Below is Bakker's acceptance speech and below that again the song he talks about in his speech. It's apt in the countdown to the Eurovision. Dix Points!
And here is the song