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Book Review | The Twin

Though its hardly uplifting, Rose Lapira finds this novel of Dutch pastoral misery to be a haunting read.

29 May 2012, 12:00am
I've put father upstairs. I had to park him on a chair first to take the bed apart. He sat there like a calf that's just a couple of minutes old, before it's been licked clean: with a directionless, wobbly head and eyes that drift over things.'

What an opening for a novel! The Twin is a haunting piece of fiction that holds our attention right to the very end, when the protagonist tells us matter-of-factly that finally, he is alone.

Winner of IMPAC Dublin Award 2010, The Twin was written by Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker and translated by David Colmer. It is the first time that a Dutch author received the Impac Award, described as the world's most lucrative individual literary award with a €100,000 prize, with part of the award money - €25,000 - going to the translator. With this publication in English, Gerbrand Bakker, at one time a professional gardener, has shot to international acclaim, and now devotes all his time to writing.

The International Impac Dublin literary award is organised by Dublin City Libraries and is open to novels written in any language, provided they have been published in English. This is an opportunity for European authors to gain a much wider and appreciative audience than that provided by their home country. There are other international awards open to books in translation, but the Impac award is unique, in that public libraries around the world nominate titles which they think they should win. In fact, this book was proposed by three Dutch libraries. An international judging panel will then select the winner.

The Twin is told in the first person by the protagonist Helmer, a 55-year-old farmer living in northern Holland with his elderly father, who is dying. Helmer has been looking after the farm for 35 years after his identical twin brother, Henk, died in a car accident. Henk was father's favourite, and he was the one who should have been the farmer; after his brother's death he had no choice but to comply with his domineering father's wishes and abandon his university studies.

The plot of this story is deliberately simple with minimal dialogue. There are few characters and no great dramatic moments. Henk's fiancée turns up. Her son - also named Henk - comes to live on the farm for a time and a complex relationship ensues between the three men in the house. All his life, Helmer has been aware that he has lived a half-life, grieving his dead brother and living in the shadow of his harsh father, a northern version of 'padre padrone'.

His life has passed by, while he is taken up with looking after the cows, the sheep and donkeys. 'I've milked the cows day after day. In a way I curse them the cows...'

By moving his dying father upstairs and cleaning up the house, he makes the first slow move to break away from the memories that chain him to the past. A gradual changing process starts to take place within him. He starts an inner process of breaking away from the memories which had imprisoned him and made him accept the life imposed on him by his father. Helmer starts to break away from the shadow of his twin, to heal from his loss and regain his whole life. This novel is also about the strong, complex demands of family ties. 

Bakker gives a detailed observation of everyday life on a small farm. He is attentive and economical in his observation of nature and the rural landscape, which belies the author's deep love for natural things and empathy with nature. Which isn't surprising, since Bakker trained and worked as a gardener. The book has a quiet rhythm running through it; the pace is deliberately slow to reflect the changes taking place in nature, which echo those taking place in the protagonist.

Farm imagery is used to describe complex relationships. An undercurrent of symbolism and ambiguity is present which turns an apparently simple story into an intriguing and powerful tale. The characters are ambiguous and Bakker seeks neither our sympathy nor condemnation. Helmer's character is not easy to grasp, and difficult to fathom.

Since Helmer has never made a stand for himself, at the (rather unexpected) end of the book, we are not completely sure that this time he has managed to do so. Once again, we encounter the ambiguity which is persistently present throughout the novel.  But we are left with the possibility that a transformation has really taken place within him, which will give him the strength to forge a more fulfilled, independent life.

The book is essentially a study of grief and loneliness and yet is not a bleak read, for it has a continuous strain of dry humour and delicate irony.

The Twin is not Bakker's first novel, but it is his first to be translated in English and to introduce him to a wide audience.

The author is sparse with words in this quiet, subtle story, in sharp contrast to the garrulity of much contemporary fiction, and he succeeds in creating an atmosphere which lingers long in the mind after the reading is over.

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