The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker, (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), Vintage, 283 pp, €9.50, ISBN: 978-0099516873
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stand here and be seen.
He sees me … He doesn’t raise a hand. I don’t raise one either. If it’s worked out, he sees what he is seeing as an old, yellowed postcard, with buildings, people, animals and trees frozen in time. Something to pick up for a moment and then lay aside again … ”
The Twin, which won the IMPAC prize in 2010, is an intensely visual novel, rolling out its narrative through images and scenes from the protagonist’s past and present life rather than through reflection or analysis. In a sense, although sturdily and engagingly plotted, it resembles an exhibition of interlinked paintings. “It’s as if things don’t exist unless you see them,” one of the characters, Henk, accuses Helmer, the protagonist and narrator. Another telling moment occurs when Helmer, in his kitchen, picks up his binoculars and looks through them at his neighbour, Ada. What he sees is Ada, in her kitchen, with her binoculars, looking at him. This may simply indicate that neighbours like to observe one another’s goings on, and that Helmer should behave himself. Or Bakker could be suggesting that existence depends on being observed, that what is not seen does not exist. However, while philosophical questions about perception and reality are posed at intervals throughout the book they are not examined. This is just one of a number of ideas dangled before the reader’s eyes in a novel which sometimes promises more than it delivers at an intellectual level. At the level of emotion, atmosphere and language, however, it does not in the slightest disappoint.
It is the story of Helmer Van Wonderen, a fifty-six year old Dutchman, privately gay, who lives with his aged father and livestock (sheep, donkeys and cattle), on a traditional family farm in what we gradually understand to be an especially picturesque part of Holland: old houses, canals, lakes, pollarded willows, abound. Helmer is a reluctant but conscientious farmer, delightfully knowledgeable about his natural environment. His twin brother, Henk, who was his father’s favourite and shared his interest in the farm, was killed in a car accident at the age of twenty, whereupon Helmer was ordered to give up his university studies (philology and literature) and help run the farm. Why did he do this? Possibly the key question of the book, posed several times by the protagonist, it is one, among several others, left unanswered in a novel which acknowledges the complexity of life and nature and leaves space for the reader to make his or her own interpretation.
Helmer’s father was a heavy-handed, authoritarian patriarch, whom everybody in the family feared and obeyed. The narrative’s main story spans about a six-month period, during which Helmer exacts revenge for past transgressions on this now incapacitated parent by shutting him up in an unheated upstairs bedroom. (The title of the novel in Dutch is Boven is het stil – It’s silent up there – which highlights the pathos of the father’s situation and of the human condition, unlike the title of the translation, emphasising the twin motif.) The first section focuses intensely on Helmer’s punishment of his father: he feeds him only occasionally as far as we can gather and there are several disturbing scenes where he taunts the old man – when he asks for mandarins Helmer brings up two and leaves them within reach knowing that the father will not be able to peel them. In response to his father’s occasional plea “I’m hungry” Helmer says “I am hungry too sometimes” and walks out, shutting the door. In another instance of casual sadism, Helmer considers putting an electric heater into the father’s bedroom when the temperature drops to several degrees below zero but decides instead to let him feel the cold – when Helmer was a child he had to sleep in the same unheated bedroom, where the frost flowers grew nightly on the ancient windowpane. Tit for tat revenge is one of the first examples of binaries we encounter in a novel which is intensely concerned with duality and liberally sprinkled with twinnings and doublets of various kinds.
Through the first several chapters, the reader is in a position much like that of the father: disempowered, drip-fed information sparingly by the controlling narrator, who is not just unreliable (all narrators are unreliable), but so laconic and emotionally inarticulate that one feels he would rather not narrate at all. Helmer is wed to understatement, secretiveness and irony. A man of few words, he is an unlikely enough person to tell any story. And yet – and this is the novel’s great achievement ‑ he is a superb narrator, subtly interweaving past and present, a master of suspense and timing, no slouch when it comes to the striking metaphor or telling phrase and with excellent descriptive powers. The novel is full of simple and perfect descriptions of landscape, nature, and interiors. The sense of place is strong.
Helmer’s life changes when his dead twin’s former fiancée, Riet, asks him to take on her troubled teenage son as a farmhand. The son is called Henk, like the dead twin, though young Henk is not the deceased Henk’s son. But his role in the novel is to replace, or to provide recompense for, the loss of that twin and to heal the wound of Helmer’s childhood pain. His presence on the farm gradually transforms the atmosphere, and Helmer’s mood. He lightens up. The ice in his heart slowly melts – he begins to feed, and possibly to forgive, his father for the early transgressions as he sees him through Henk’s eyes. Helmer softens towards the readers too, revealing more about his childhood, his emotional history, his heartbreak, his longing – he has been in love with a former farmhand for most of his adult life. This man, who was kind to Helmer when he was a boy, has been gone for more than twenty years – he was fired by the father and went to Denmark. Helmer still puts himself to sleep (or masturbates possibly) reciting Danish placenames to himself, a litany of names. Sometimes these are the names of suburbs in Copenhagen; it is rather as if an English person recited Blackrock, Salthill, Dun Laoghaire, Shankill to himself in a romantic litany – and is one of many examples of the novel’s sense of the absurd. Denmark, a day’s drive from Holland, its twin in Europe, is a slightly ridiculous Shangri La for anyone, even a farmer who has not had a holiday in thirty-seven years because of the milking. (No farm relief scheme in Holland, at least not in this novel.)
The novel plays with several narrative tropes. For instance, when a gun appears somewhat abruptly in an early chapter we are fairly sure it will go off in the final act, as per Chekhov’s instructions, and indeed it does, in a divertingly unpredictable way. Another influence may be the wonder tale or fairytale. Some critics have made the comment that the style of The Twin is flat, like Holland. Trite as the observation is there is truth in it. A sterling stylistic trait of the fairytale, identified by the German scholar Max Lüthi in his book The European Folktale: Form and Nature, is its “flatness” – the tales are one-dimensional, they happen on the surface, the characters are agents who perform actions and express a very limited range of emotions if any. Nonetheless, a central concern of fairytales is human emotion. Specifically they deal with adolescents growing up, finding independence and emotional maturity. But their profound meaning is expressed in images and action, not in introspection or analysis.
The Twin functions in similar manner. Its direct statements and single clause sentences seldom meander down the more twisted byways of the mind: Helmer’s stream of consciousness is a narrow matter of fact canal. He registers images and facts and that is what we are presented with – what Helmer sees, what happens now and what happened in the past, occasionally what is said (in general, very little: most characters in the novel are as laconic as the narrator; that is, the male characters; the two women are, interestingly, more garrulous.) Like a fairytale, The Twin deals with profound human issues, with filial, sibling and sexual relationships, with love, hate, loss, death and self-discovery. But it does not comment on these matters in any abstract or reflective way – any reflection is by way of imagery (the twin motif, the single canoe, the hooded crow.) If Bakker is as concerned with individual psychology as, say, Henry James, stylistically this novel is as different from any by James as can be imagined.
Although aspects of the fairtytale are suggested, the overriding influence is probably the children’s story. The Twin is described by the publisher as Bakker’s debut, but it isn’t. He has also written a novel for young people. The Twin, though very adult, is itself a story about growing up – even if its protagonist does not achieve maturity until he is fifty-seven. The growth he experiences during the six or seven months covered by the novel, in which he evolves from curmudgeonly sadist to warm human being, and at the end of which he finds the love of his life, is the stock theme of many novels about adolescents. Helmer’s personal development was frozen when he was twenty –when his twin died and his own career was stopped ‑ and it resumes at the age of fifty-six. The final line of the novel is this: “I am alone.” He has a lover now, but in fact he has never lived alone, without a twin or a father or a mother, until this moment. He has completed the coming of age journey, has detached himself from the “twin” and achieved independence and aloneness.
This is a classic theme of coming of age novels and The Twin employs a classic juvenile novel formula. The parallel may be coincidental or conscious – probably the latter given that Bakker seems to be a very literary writer for all his lightness of touch and the surface simplicity of his writing. He uses the same template as Silas Marner, Heidi, and, more recently, Goodnight Mister Tom: in all these novels, a hardened and reclusive man (Silas Marner, Alm Uncle, Mr Tom), who suffered a severe trauma in early adulthood – the loss of the loved one ‑ is redeemed by the love of an innocent child. Henk, the teenager from Brabant whose sojourn on the farm changes Helmer, is not exactly Heidi – he smokes and drinks wine and has caused his mother no end of trouble. Nevertheless, those icons of childish innocence, Eppie and Heidi, are his literary forebears, and, just like them, his visit to the remote and isolated farm exercises a magical transformation on its embittered denizen.
The change is not too magical. Even though Helmer Van Wonderen mellows and goes to the land of his dreams (Denmark!) with the love of his life, the conclusion is that there are no easy solutions for human beings. Finally, ironically, and puzzlingly too, although Helmer is with his beloved, he is alone.
The novel poses important questions about parent-child relationships, free will and even the nature of human experience. Certain of these, like the theme of “seeing”, are, I think, dropped into the text and then abandoned. The motif of twinship is constant, part of the pattern of the novel and, it is suggested, of the world – pairs, opposites, parallels are ubiquitous: Henk and Henk, Henk and Helmer, Helmer and his father, two donkeys, twin lambs. Like the ideas on perception, the twinship theme dangles before our eyes – it is demonstrated that the world is full of couples of one kind and another, but nevertheless that every human is finally alone.
The Twin is a beautiful novel: shapely, lyrical, and thoroughly engaging. Helmer’s voice is compelling and convincing. All first person narrators are constructs, and frequently authors slip out of character and attribute thoughts and observations to the first person narrator that are unlikely, and obviously the author’s own. Bakker though is consistent in maintaining Helmer’s perspective. When metaphors are used – and they are, frequently and strikingly – they are the metaphors of a fifty-six-year old farmer: “He sat there like a calf that’s just a couple of minutes old, before it’s been licked clean.”
The Twin succeeds in being at the same time universal and intensely local, an achievement of the best literature. We are carried by the simple and powerful prose to Helmer’s farm: to the flat fields and the wide skies, the perfect houses, the neat canals, first to Holland and then to Denmark ‑ two countries we seldom visit in the land of fiction.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a novelist, short story writer and literary critic. Her latest novel is Fox Swallow Scarecrow (Blackstaff Press, 2007).