The story of a man who never got to live
A novel that Dutch publishers saw as having only a cult appeal has taken this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and to mark the event its author chose to play a Dutch Eurovision entry at the award ceremony, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY
PERSPECTIVE interests Gerbrand Bakker, he enjoys contrasting viewpoints. “The same thing becomes different,” he say, then he pauses while he considers this. Bakker often pauses, his gestures are large and expansive, at times playful, if invariably employed to deflect from his natural reserve. When he moves his arms they suddenly appear to lengthen, the way a top-class swimmer stretches and pulls into a stroke.
His abrupt smile conveys a well developed sense of logic as well as his unease. Here is a wary man accustomed to thinking deeply and clearly. Bakker is deliberate, nothing is tossed off; each word is weighed. For him interviews are agony. He protects his inner self, “writing is what I do, it is what there is to me, what I’m about . . . the rest of it doesn’t matter.” Although delighted that news of his having won this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Twinis at last being made public, he sighs with relief and shrugs his shoulders: “I have known for a month, it has been difficult for me, keeping the secret.”
Bakker’s gardener’s face, as weathered as that of an Arctic explorer, creases into a series of expressions and he appears more amused than vindicated that The Twin, a novel that Dutch publishers saw as having only a cult appeal, has taken the world’s richest literary prize for a single work of fiction.
World Cup football action is continuing on the large television screen in the pub we are in and David Colmer, Bakker’s translator, is discreetly glancing up at it as he recalls having first read The Twinfor a publisher in Holland. “I loved it and wrote a favourable reader’s report, urging them to publish it, but they didn’t.” Colmer, an Australian who has lived in the Netherlands for twenty years after a four-year stay in Berlin, always believed in The Twinand says “I was thrilled when another publisher did take the book and I was asked to translate it.”
Bakker’s beautifully soothing voice resonates, he looks at me and remarks, turning briefly to Colmer, then back to me. “When I read David’s translation I asked: ‘Who has written this book? It is what I wrote.’”
Within a few pages Bakker knew his novel was in the care of a gifted translator. Colmer began learning Dutch when he was 30. “When I was living in Berlin, I met a Dutch girl; she wanted to go back to Holland. I went with her and learnt the language. Gerbrand’s Dutch is so clear, so spare; I feel the tone has come through into the English version. I translated what I read. It is Gerbrand.”
Listening to Bakker is like hearing Helmer speak, such is the similarity of tone, although Bakker does not favour the personal, he has in Helmer created a character traumatised by the loss of a twin as well as his own life. “I’ve been scared all my life,” says Helmer, “Scared of silence and darkness.”
Most Impac Dublin watchers will agree that The Twinwas expected to win – its strongest challenge coming from Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson. “I admit,” says Bakker, “I have read none of the shortlist. The only writer I had heard of was Joseph O’Neill.”
Celebrated by critics and enjoyed by readers, The Twinis an inspired choice. Its wide appeal will have a major international effect on the prize and joins the elite list of great novels that have won to date, including David Malouf’s Remembering Babylonin 1996; Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plumsin 1998; Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischiefin 2001; Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Redin 2003; Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Lightin 2004 and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horsesin 2007.
Bakker, precise and exact, points out within a couple of minutes of meeting, “you know, it is not a debut novel. I see this written, here and there, on the cover, this book being described as a ‘debut novel’. It won a first novel prize, €5,000, and I said ‘thank you’ but nothing else and my friends and I sat and had a drink and said ‘it is not a debut book’. It is not my first, or my second or even a third. I have written what? Four books. I have a novel coming out in Holland in October, the title in English would be The Detour; another was published there last year. It is called June. But before of all that I published a novel for young adults, Pear Trees Blossom White.It is being re-issued, in a revised edition, but I only changed it slightly, I made the doubt, the ambivalence, less.” He smiles, content with the confusion he is causing.
He has been travelling for hours. Bakker does not like flying so he made the journey from Amsterdam by train and ferry, stopping off in London to meet his British publisher. He seems weary. Helmer, the narrator of The Twin,is a man left behind by circumstances. It takes only one event to change a life. In the case of Helmer, he never had a chance to live. The death of his twin brother results in his having to leave university to work the family farm. Helmer is an Everyman who realises he has grown old without ever having been young: “This is what happens in life,” he agrees, adding, “but it is not my story. I am not Helmer.” Bakker, 48 last April, grew up on a dairy farm in northern Holland. “We also had some sheep. I was the third of six children. We all had to do our share of work. But no, I didn’t stay; I was one of the ones who left. I was 18. My parents are retired and live in a house beside the farm; one of my brothers now works it.”
The sense of place and the Dutch countryside are vital to The Twin. Mention of this draws a rare anecdote from Bakker. “I went cycling with JM Coetzee near my home place. He was looking around as we went on, then he stopped and said ‘this is your country, I recognise it from the book’ I was pleased because it proved that he had read the book closely. I admire his work but not the Elizabeth Costello alter ego, that I don’t like. I did think Slow Manwas good.”
Colmer says; “It’s set in Adelaide, that’s where I ‘m from. People don’t write about there and then along comes Coetzee.” It is Bakker’s only mention of a living writer and he admires Coetzee, praising Summertime. He does not name-drop. When Colmer refers to Peter Carey, Bakker sits up, “Who is he? Should I read him?”
The details of his early life don’t come freely. Bakker, his face at times a closed mask, is not an anecdotal individual; he responds to ideas. His reading began when he was 20. “A friend of mine told me what I should read, and I did, Cheever and Ring Lardner, Iris Murdoch, I love Iris Murdoch. The Sea, The Seais my favourite. In it she shows that the magical can affect the ordinary. I like that. I also love Raymond Carver and John Updike. You know, I only read Winnie the Poohwhen I was 20; it is a great book, and also The Wind in the Willows. Hmm, yes, wonderful.”
Even while he is speaking Bakker appears to be thinking, processing ideas; he is at once responsive and opinionated, if always remote. “A book that was very important to me was Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty.It is the only one of his books I have read. It was enough, it taught me a lot. I read most of Nabokov work and loved it, but now, no, I can’t read him at all. I am a slow reader. People begin mentioning books and I think . . .” He smiles as if to say there are too many books and not enough time to read them.
Still, three people with a shared interest in books are sitting at a table and the conservation immediately becomes dominated by books. Is the Netherlands a good place for a writer? “It is good. Open, friendly. We meet, we talk about books. Everyone is respectful of what each one is doing, trying to do. It’s good. When I first went to Amsterdam when I was young I went to the movies everyday, serious art house. Now I love the Hollywood blockbusters. I want to sit in the cinema and let the movie absorb me. I loved Avatar. I saw it twice. I was worried about going back, but the second time it was even better.”
Dutch literature must contend with two major languages: Dutch, the language in which Bakker writes, and Flemish. Although the Dutch reading public is bilingual, even tri-lingual, Colmer, good looking, younger than his years, says “Dutch readers tend to read foreign fiction in the Dutch translations. The novel I am translating at the moment is in Flemish, it is very ornate, baroque, very unlike Gerbrand’s prose, but it is also very good.”
THE TWIN DID WELL IN GERMANY and France, it is also popular in the US, a culture for which it seems ideally suited. “The movie is being made,” Bakker mentions, “by a woman director, Nanouk Leopold, it is being set in the north of France, a French movie with French actors. I think that’s interesting.” On leaving the family farm, Bakker spent two years working as a social worker. He then went to university in Amsterdam to study historical linguistics, including Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. “Up until then I had always done things that people had suggested that I would like. This was my idea and it was good for me.” He has compiled two etymological dictionaries. Bakker also worked as a subtitler.
“I’ve done wildlife documentaries about Africa, but not the Attenborough ones. I even did subtitles for pornography. It was funny, at first it paid well, according to the length of the movie. But then it changed to the words to be translated, and then it wasn’t so good,” says Bakker who also does landscaping projects. “Not that often now. I don’t have a wife, or children, or a dog, or a garden.”
Long before he was writing, he was a writer. There is no point in asking him when the writing began, because he was always writing in his head, storing the images. When he went to a school to speak to the children about Pear Trees Blossom White, he realised he had nothing left to say about it. “It was gone,” he says, as interested in his reaction as I am. “I don’t prepare things.”
The brevity of his speech at the IMPAC Dublin presentation dinner last night is not as surprising as was his novel use of music. The song, Waar is de zon?was the Dutch entry for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Why? “I think it is a good song,” he says good naturedly, “sentimental up to the point that it no longer matters.”
There is a great deal of wry humour in The Twin. Helmer is sharp and his resentment of his brutal father festers throughout the narrative. Always imposing herself on Helmer is Ada his neighbour. “The character in the book I like the least,” says Bakker, who calmly announces, “My favourite is Wim, he never appears but his presence is felt.” As is that of Helmer’s long-dead, silent, suffering mother.
Listening as Bakker and Colmer discuss the Dutch literary scene and major writers not yet available in English translation, including Bakker’s other novels, is both exciting and a little frustrating.
Is Cees Nooteboom [the Dutch writer] regarded as a patrician figure? “No, not all” says Bakker, “He left; he moved to Berlin and also spends time in Portugal. A Dutch writer should write about Dutch characters. I ask why would a Dutch writer write about a Russian? In my new book, I am also guilty, it is set in north Wales, but the character, she is Dutch.”