Everybody wants to live forever, said Jonathan Swift, but nobody wants to grow old. The satirist’s opinion might have been reinforced had he lived to read Hendrik Groen’s account of a year spent in an Amsterdam nursing home, a book that became an instant phenomenon when published in the Netherlands a couple of years ago.
Let's clear one thing up: Hendrik Groen is not the author of this book. In fact, no one (outside of his Dutch editor) is aware of the author's identity. Speculation is rife that he or she might in fact be a famous writer working under a pseudonym. It hardly matters, for The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old is a joy to read, as much concerned with friendship and dignity as it is with the debilitating effects of aging.
Our narrator sets out his mission in the opening pages, to give an “uncensored exposé” of a year in the life of his care home inmates, where the garden always remains locked, the thermostats may not be raised above 23 degrees, and an elderly man in a wheelchair can be pushed down the stairs by his oppressed wife “with no repercussions because the director is afraid of negative publicity”.
Nowhere to run?
The setting itself is an unusual one. It’s not a jail; the old folk are free to come and go as they choose. Still, as with the inmates of insular prisons such as Alcatraz or Robben Island, they are faced with the question of where they might go, should they ever decide to make a run for it.
Rare visits from family are only intended to salve the guilty consciences of those who decline to take them in, and the seniors’ finances are almost entirely extinguished, thanks in part to offspring who have taken their savings from them – “for safekeeping”.
Looming over the residents is the nursing home’s director, Mrs Stelwagen, who adheres like a tube of Pritt Stick to a rule book that no one is allowed to see. And if it seems like a miserable existence, it’s enlivened considerably by Hendrik’s cheerful, cynical and rebellious personality.
Determined not to be a whinger, he forms the Old But Not Dead Club with a few like-minded souls. Together they escape the confines of the home to take trips to cookery classes, Pixar movies and golf clubs, expeditions that ensure the resentment and anger of others who are not allowed to join their exclusive society.
Connections between childhood and old age are well drawn, with moments of bullying and misbehaviour swiftly denied. Indeed, when a hunt begins for a serial killer of the care home’s fish, the culprit, another octogenarian, doesn’t care if he gets caught because “whenever he’s in a tight spot he’ll lie through his teeth, and rant and rave, swearing he had nothing to do with it”.
At the heart of the story lies a sweet and unsentimental relationship between Hendrik and Eefje, an elderly widow who takes up residence on his floor after a previous occupant has died. Eefje is a sparkling presence, as insubordinate as her new friend. Although the relationship remains platonic, a wonderful bond of mutual support and companionship develops between them.
It is not just Eefje who keeps Hendrik going; there is also Evert, a sort of Leslie Phillips, Ding-Dong rascal who keeps having body parts amputated; Grietje, an old woman slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Ria and Antonie, a pair of superannuated chefs who delight in preparing clandestine and strictly forbidden meals in their rooms.
Refusal to wallow
We learn very little about Hendrik’s past. We never discover what he did for a living and are told only a few details regarding the death of his daughter and his wife’s subsequent slip into depression. Hendrik refuses to wallow in unhappiness, and the book is all the better for that.
What we do know is that Hendrik is a good man (his selfless attitude with his friends is testament to that). There is something wonderful about his commitment to his diary which, he says, leaves him feeling “more relaxed, and less frustrated”.
The growing international success of this book would suggest that there might be further volumes on the way; Hendrik implies as much in the closing pages. But it’s hard not to feel the idea might prove less charming the second time around. Whether or not that comes to pass, this remains an entertaining and uplifting story of a man in the winter of his days, stoic in the face of bureaucratic nonsense and an unabashed need to wear a nappy.
Imagined or not, this is the diary of someone who wants nothing more than to be allowed see out his days with dignity and respect. It’s not too much to ask, really, is it?
John Boyne's latest work is a short story collection, Beneath the Earth (Doubleday).