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Bound Together: Breaking Those Toxic Family Ties

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 25, 2011

I found The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker, sitting on a coffee table at a writers’ colony in 2009. It carried praise from J.M. Coetzee for its “restrained tenderness and laconic humor,” which seemed ample justification for using it to avoid my own writing.

I finished it, weeping, a day later, and have been puzzling over its powerful hold on me ever since. I’ve recommended it again and again, and while I can’t say it’s entirely undiscovered — it won the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Award — no one I know ever seems to have heard of it.

The novel, told in the first person, is deliberately, deceptively simple. The plot is minimal, the language plainly descriptive. The characters reveal themselves through spare dialogue and gestures. The humor is dark.

It begins: “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 … with a directionless, wobbly head and eyes that drift over things.”

The “I” is Helmer, a 55-year-old dairy farmer whose identical twin, Henk, died some three decades before. Their mother is dead now, too, leaving only Helmer to care for his aging father — the same father who favored Henk and who, after Henk’s death, reclaimed Helmer for the farm. “You’re done in Amsterdam,” Father said, with typical economy, his words crushing Helmer’s dream of studying Dutch language and literature. Ever since, Helmer has been frozen in place.

The Twin chronicles his partial, hesitant thaw.

Soon after overhearing a passing canoeist remark that the farm looks as if it hasn’t changed since 1967 — the year Henk died — Helmer moves Father upstairs and begins to remake the house.

“Half my life I haven’t thought about a thing,” Helmer, a bachelor, observes. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day. In a way I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of sedately breathing cows on a winter’s evening.”

With only a few characters, with almost no drama, Bakker manages to explore the resentments and obligations of blood relations; the sting of being disfavored; the stun of loss — how for decades Helmer couldn’t hear his own name without placing “Henk and” in front of it. Yet the novel also makes clear how life — temperaments, interests, sexuality — was already prying the brothers apart. Helmer’s desires are not just unfulfilled: They’re often unarticulated. Homoerotic tension curls through the novel, and the expressions of strong feeling sear because they’re so rare. The freedom Helmer claims at the end is all the more moving for its smallness.

Bakker wrote subtitles for nature films before becoming a novelist. In the book, relations with animals seem proxies for human ones: a botched killing of kittens conveys Father’s casual cruelty; the two donkeys Helmer buys, despite their lack of utilitarian purpose, his own tenderness.

At the time I read The Twin, I was in the Hudson River valley, an area of farms and open hills. Time had slowed. I could pass 15 minutes watching an army of birds advance across the lawn. On walks I studied horses, pigs, broken branches. I wonder if this opened me not just to The Twin’s story, but its rhythms. Its prose, its unspooling, somehow mimics nature itself, in which the most incremental changes accrete to the progression of life.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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