The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker
20 May, 2013
Only ambitious canoeists get this far. It was hot and they had taken off their shirts, the muscles in their arms and shoulders gleamed in the sunlight. I was standing at the side of the house, unseen, and watched them trying to cut each other off….
The lad glanced up. ‘Look at this farm,’ he said to his friend, a redhead with freckles and sunburnt shoulders, it’s timeless. Its here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930.’
One of Holland’s foremost contemporary writers, The Twin is Gerbrand Bakker’s debut novel translated from the Dutch by David Colmer which won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was April’s choice for my book group, The Riverside Readers.
Helmer van Wonderen is a 57 year old farmer living near Lake IJssel just north of Amsterdam with his bedridden father. It’s almost 30 years since his twin brother Henk was killed in a car crash sending not only their family off kilter but also Helmer’s university life and dreams. For Henk was the apple of his father’s eye, the confident and assured farmer born with green fingers while Helmer struggled to find his place except when he was with Henk.
That might have been the day that Father – simply because I was having fun doing something else – decided for himself that Henk would be the farmer, even though I was the oldest, if just by a couple of minutes. Henk helped Father. I went skating and treated the farmhand as an equal. Maybe it was just one incident in a series of events that made Father conclude I wasn’t suited to succeed him. After Henk died Father had to make do with me, but in his eyes I always remained second choice.
They were inseparable as boys and it is only when Henk turns 18 and meets the blond and beautiful Riet that fissures occur in their tight sibling relationship. As Helmer watches his brother move alone into adulthood, his conflicting feelings increase for he has always lived in Henk’s shadow and it is only his father’s farmhand Jaap, who once taught him how to skate, who sees Helmer as an individual.
But Henk’s sudden death, quickly followed by his mother’s, throws Helmer into an inescapable situation with his strict father who now needs him to work on the farm. But now, his father is weak and needs his help and Helmer is slowing, finally, making changes to his stagnant life. With the redecoration of their house (although Henk’s room will always remain untouched) comes an unexpected letter from Riet wanting to visit Helmer only if his father is no longer there. On an impulse, Helmer replies saying his father was dead and so begins an unfolding of events, a culmination of the long buried memories and past wounds that have remained unhealed and unexpected changes that will affect all their lives. For how can they move on from Henk’s death if no one can speak of it?
I found The Twin to be excruciatingly slow at the beginning but it did gradually pick up a little pace as the story unfolded. This doesn’t in any way diminish the quality of Bakker’s prose or the reader’s enjoyment because this is a slow, still book, one that mirrors a way of life that has probably remained unchanged in hundreds of years. But one with very deep waters. Initially, I found Helmer to be a little disturbing. Living alone with only his taciturn father as company would do that to a man. Especially one who had always wanted to escape life as a farmer. There was something dark and brooding and unsaid about Helmer and we see this in the small cruelties in his relationship with his aging father as they weave and dodge through their history looking for acceptance and forgiveness.
Helmer’s friendship with their neighbour Ada and her two children, his interactions with the various people who come to buy from his farm and his relationship with Riet, unformed and unevolved except through the lens of Henk, are also half-formed and incomplete. The characters are as unsettling as the cold waters of Lake IJssel where Henk was swept away. Especially the two women, Ada and Riet. We never see Wien, Ada’s husband, who is always too busy working. Ada’s children are friendly and always come to play at Helmer’s farm and are especially taken by his donkeys. And Ada who always fusses over Helmer and is caught looking through binoculars at Helmer’s curtain-less house. And Riet, once so in love with Henk except she hadn’t realised Henk was a twin. And who keeps pushing her son and herself onto Helmer, still unsure about what exactly it is that she wants.
But there is something simple about Helmer’s life and his thoughts. He doesn’t think too deeply about his life as though going through his daily ritual is the only thing keeping him sane. And when Riet sends her son to Helmer for help, Helmer is reluctantly drawn out of his shell and we begin to see another side to him which he has kept hidden and unexplored. Bakker’s skill lies in saying less rather than more and he does this exquisitely, especially the homosexual subtext which remains ambiguous. Although I didn’t fall in love with The Twin while I was reading it, somehow, Helmer’s story keeps cropping up in my thoughts once in a while and leaves me pondering as to whether he has finally managed to find happiness. It’s a strange one, this novel. But I think one I’d like to read again in the future.
Father was an only child. Henk – named after my Van Wonderen grandfather – is dead. I’m not married. After me, we’ll die out.