Not All Quiet Upstairs

I first heard the name Gerbrand Bakker this spring in Fenway Park. The Red Sox were playing Tampa Bay, and the Dutch Fulbright student sitting beside me was raving about a novel called Boven is het Stil. Perhaps like most people who are barely familiar with Benelux literature, I was expecting him to name something by Gerrit Achterberg. When he didn’t, I let Gerbrand Bakker’s name slip from my mind. But now, having read The Twin, David Colmer’s spell-binding translation of Boven is het Stil, I am beginning to understand the excitement around Bakker’s new IMPAC Dublin award-winning novel set in the damp and muck of a North Holland farm.

The plot is simple enough. Helmer van Wonderen is a middle-aged farmer who has not yet taken a chance at living his life. In 1947, Helmer was born minutes before his identical twin Henk. Throughout childhood they dressed alike, looked alike, and during times of danger became one. The more outgoing Henk is their father’s son, shaping the world around him. Helmer, the quiet observer of the world, follows his brother ten paces behind on bike and in life. But when Henk’s girlfriend Riet drives the family car off a dyke in 1967, Henk dies, and Helmer is forced to abandon his studies in Amsterdam in order to take over Henk’s work on the farm. It’s the second choice for everyone in the family and leaves all unhappy. For decades now, Helmer has been taking care of his cows, his sheep, his chickens, and his two donkeys, unloved and lonely, though never alone from his father.

Bakker’s novel opens in the present with Helmer transferring his aged and infirm father upstairs. Moments of rejuvenation—as Helmer rips out old carpets and repaints the downstairs—are coupled with instances of quiet cruelty. When his father says he’s hungry and thirsty, Helmer coolly replies that he too feels hunger and thirst. In Bakker’s unassuming prose we get both the son’s anger at some loss in the past and the petty reversal of power in the isolation of a farm. Helmer’s nosy neighbour Ada and her two children Teum and Roland visit to inspect the improvements, and Ada pushes Helmer into getting a larger bed with two pillows. Such small domestic changes signal a larger transformation at work. Riet, Henk’s old girlfriend, appears again and convinces Helmer to take in her son, also named Henk, to help with the farm. The memory of the twin-brother Henk and the young, almost-nephew Henk weave in and out of the narrative. At one point in the novel Henk gets out of bed, and the reader is not sure which Henk is getting out of which bed and with whom he’d been lying.

Bakker’s masterful novel preserves a fine balance between ambiguity in its characters’ wants and desires with the clarity of its prose. Helmer’s descriptions of people are telling. His eyes gaze lovingly at men and boys, but Bakker is not interested in labelling his characters gay or straight. Helmer’s longing is born from decades of loneliness rather than mere sexual desire. Riet might have sent young Henk because she wants to marry Helmer, the twin who looks like her first love Henk, but Henk’s arrival at the farm reminds Helmer of another farmhand from his own youth: Jaap, from Friesland—the only man who ever loved Helmer. He’d kissed the young boy on the mouth like a child would kiss a grandfather. Bakker sets just enough prose on the page so our senses tingle with anticipation.

Helmer has never been alone all his life. He is scared of shapes in the dark, scared of being with his father, and scared of being without his father. The original Dutch title Boven is het stil (It’s all quiet upstairs) makes a reference to this tenuous relationship with the father that is lost in the new English title, The Twin, which focuses too much attention on the relationship between Helmer and Henk. But this is a small quibble with the otherwise beautifully produced Archipelago Books’ Rainmaker Translation.

The father upstairs is not as quiet as the title would have it, and his presence shapes the novel’s action and the son’s worries. Helmer’s solace comes from Ada’s lively children, who play house with his discarded carpets, help him with the chores of the farm, and who, despite lying under his donkeys in the shed to conquer their fear, grow afraid when the animals are let out of their shed. Their childlike wonder and innocence reflect Helmer’s own observant nature. The novel is replete with stunning one-liners like “Drizzle isn’t much more than mist with delusions of grandeur,” and its descriptive passages bring us not only details of rural Dutch life and animals but also insight into the workings of men and children.

Here Bakker’s work has benefited from a loving translation by David Colmer who gives us precise words like “pollarding willows” (instead of lopping tree branches) while preserving the simplicity of the language. Bakker unfurls Helmer’s past and his history of stagnation at the family farm like a fern unfurls its frond, slowly revealing the beauty of its blades. Through the children’s love of football, Denmark is introduced to us as Helmer’s Promised Land. In the last section of the book, when the farmhand Jaap returns to free Helmer from the constraints of his life in Holland, Bakker’s prose continues to slip away from the shores of predictability: we are left with the middle-aged men swimming in a Danish sea, and though we remain unsure of what is passing between them, we know that a transformation has occurred in Helmer’s life.

Dutch may be considered a “minor” language, but Bakker’s is a major work, restrained and beautiful. English literature is improved for having this new translation added to it.

Read our review of Ernst Weiss’ Georg Lethem: Physician and Murderer.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The Twin – Gerbrand Bakker « Little Dutch Book

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