Translated by David Colmer
When his novel was announced the winner of the IMPAC award, Bakker spoke of the need to go lie down for a while. He’d recovered somewhat when I saw him at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival thanks to the prize-money allowing him to buy a isolated property (I think he said it was on an island) where he could enjoy the peace, quiet and the wonders of Mother Nature.
Those interests are very evident in The Twin. Set on one of the few remaining farms near the IJsselmeer, the discipline and rigours of farm life set a undeviating pattern. The cows must be milked, the sheep cared for and the donkeys fed like clockwork. The landscape and the seasons are painstakingly depicted. The world turns and life continues on its predictable course …
… to death. In the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse, an old man lies dying, Watched by a big black crow. His relationship with his son Helmer, the eponymous twin of the English title, is shall we say, complex. Henk, the other twin, the favoured son, is long dead and Helmer is still coming to terms with the loss. It has, without a shadow of a doubt marred his life. For starters, it meant that he had to abandon his plans for an academic career and return home to take over the farm. It never occurred to him to say no. So for years he has been consigned to this lonely existence and completely resentful of the father who ruined his life.
As the story slowly unfolds – Bakker does take his time with this – it becomes apparent that Helmer actually lost his brother when Henk fell in love with the beautiful Riet, who inadvertently caused his death. 30 years later and Riet reappears, wanting Helmer to take her own truculent teenage son, Henk (not the son of Henk by the way) under his wing and teach him some purpose. As you can imagine the undercurrents of this drama are quite strong and yet Bakker’s prose is so spare that you’d be forgiven for thinking that Helmer takes it all in his stride. It’s almost as if he’s in a state of suspended animation.
And yet the events here are an ideal opportunity for him to break out of his emotional paralysis and begin to live properly. As the psychological profile of the man deepens, it becomes more apparent that he’s not going o be able to do it. Small glimpses of happiness that are scattered throughout are evidence of what could have been (the delight and the antics of the neighbour’s small sons, the obvious tenderness Helmer feels towards his donkeys and his relationship with Jaap) actually emphasise the tragedy of a man trapped by circumstance and his own personality.
The cumulative effect of the story and the insertion of clever details (the neighbour spying on Helmer with binoculars, echoes of the past in the present, a frisson of homoeroticism) makes for a moving read, although the spare – actually the really spare prose – lessens the impact for me. Bakker says that his former career as a subtitle writer taught him what to leave out, and others praise his writing as subtle and restrained. In places though I found it rather frustrating, particularly when people did strange things with no accompanying explanation. This was true of The Detour also but the Emily Dickinson poem held that novel together wonderfully and it all came together in the end. While The Twin is undoubtedly sad and subtle, it remained a little mystifying.
Nowhere more so that in the subplot about the egg …. explanations in comments welcome.