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.
It's good for you. That's the pale impetus so many of us use to immerse ourselves in foreign works of art. We should watch Bergman films, and look, we've got some in our Netflix queue! It's just that Speed was on cable again last night and, well ... the time just slipped away!
But the inescapable truth is, sampling world culture is an essential and powerfully enriching experience — as anyone who has consumed the twisted and beautiful novels and poetry of this year's Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller knows. The works of foreign fiction listed here are about romance, family duty, sex, travel, violence and spirituality. In other words, they are books about life. They just happen to be set in slightly unfamiliar locales. Like Pittsburgh.
Season Of Ash
Season of Ash: A Novel in Three Acts, by Jorge Volpi (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam), paperback, 464 pages, Open Letter, list price: $15.95
For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That's geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it's quality airplane reading, too.
Volpi's sweeping story, about three brilliant women and the way their lives connect to the sociological chaos of the 20th century, is told from the perspective of a man who, it's revealed early on, has murdered one of them. Volpi is the author of the internationally best-selling In Search of Klingsor, and he writes like a young Michael Crichton, but with twice the IQ and a historical perspective. Nerd. (Read Volpi's description of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.)
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers), paperback, 224 pages, Penguin, list price: $15
A small village cuts itself off from civilization and becomes the "new Robinson Crusoes," fearing the day "they" show up. A plague carried by mice turns another family into savages. And, yes, in the uncanny realm created by Soviet author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, there once lived a woman who tried to kill her neighbor's baby (by pouring bleach under the nursery door). Petrushevskaya's short stories — which use fairy-tale imagery and allegory to comment on Russia's Soviet past and corrupt present — combine Gogol's depths of absurdity and Shirley Jackson paranoia, to disturbing effect. It's an insane world in which these characters live, and they respond in kind.
Lately, much has been made about the absence in contemporary Russian literature of worthy heirs to the realist masters Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But the rise of the tightly constructed "weird" tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future. (Read the title story from Petrushevskaya's collection.)
The Armies, by Evelio Rosero (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean), paperback, 208 pages, New Directions, list price: $14.95
Despite being set amid the festering present-day violence of Colombia, life appears normal at the outset of Evelio Rosero's The Armies. An elderly Ismail peeps over his neighbor's wall to watch the young woman sunbathe naked. People visit Hortensia Galindo's house to offer sympathy for her disappeared husband, but joke that he ran off with a mistress. Ismail's account of how he met his wife, Otilia — which begins with a man shot dead, by a child, in front of him — is almost casually told.
Soon, however, guerrillas invade their rural town of San Jose, and Otilia becomes one of the missing. Winner of the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The Armies is a realistic account of Colombia's civil unrest told in a tense, stripped-down style. It avoids slipping into polemic by keeping at its emotional center an old man interested not in taking sides but just the safe return of his wife. (Rosero's narrator explains the complex relationships between his neighbors.)
The Confessions of Noa Weber
The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven (translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu), paperback, 330 pages, Melville House, list price: $16.95
Noa Weber lives a public life of feminist authority. A single mother living in Israel, lawyer and author of a best-selling series of novels featuring a hard-boiled, "don't need a man" superheroine who fights injustices against women, she presents herself as a strong and independent role model. In actuality, she is obsessed with and almost entirely subservient to Alek, the nonreciprocating father of her daughter.
Feeling trapped in the contradiction of her public and private life, Noa sits down to write her story, unflinchingly and unforgivingly. By deciding to mine one character's psychology so thoroughly, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven risks not only believability but the chance that readers won't stick around for 300 pages. Noa is a fine companion, however: intelligent, self-aware, charming and darkly witty. That risk earned Hareven Israel's Sapir Prize and, one hopes, a growing presence in the English-language market. (Read Noa's memory of her wedding arrangements to Alek.)
The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer), hardcover, 250 pages, Archipelago, list price: $25
They're loath to admit it, but all parents have their favorite kid. In The Twin, Gerbrand Bakker's quiet story set in the Dutch countryside, Henk is always favored over his identical brother, Helmer. Successful at school, athletic and with the perfect girlfriend, Henk has the full and loving attention of his father, while Helmer lags behind. But after Henk's fatal car crash, Helmer is forced to abandon his education and move back to the family farm. He can barely stifle his resentment.
In its candor about the bitterness that can arise from family obligations and the responsibility of caretaking, The Twin is both touching and surprising. Bakker's beautiful and uncluttered prose style is almost old-fashioned. A character's remark about the farm — "It's here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930" — could refer to the novel itself. Family drama, after all, is timeless. (Read Bakker's description of Helmer's homecoming.)
Gerbrand Bakker (translated from Dutch by David Colmer)
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. I ripped off the blankets, sheets and undersheet, leaned the mattress and bed boards against the wall, and unscrewed the sides of the bed. I tried to breathe through my mouth as much as possible. I'd already cleared out the upstairs room - my room.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"You're moving," I said.
"I want to stay here."
I let him keep the bed. One half of it has been cold for more than ten years now, but the unslept side is still crowned with a pillow. I screwed the bed back together in the upstairs room, facing the window. I put the legs up on blocks and remade it with clean sheets and two clean pillow-cases. After that I carried Father upstairs. When I picked him up off the chair he fixed his eyes on mine and kept them there until I was laying him in bed and our faces were almost touching.
"I can walk," he said, only then.
"No you can't."
Through the window he saw things he hadn't expected to see. "I'm up high," he said.
"Yes, that's so you can look out and see something other than just sky."
Despite the new room and the clean sheets and pillowcases, it smelt musty, he smelt musty and moldy. I opened one of the two windows and used the hook to set it ajar. Outside it was quiet. A fresh chill was in the air and there were only a few crumpled leaves left on the topmost branches of the crooked ash in the front garden. Off in the distance I saw three cyclists riding along the dyke. If I had stepped aside he would have seen the three cyclists as well. I stayed put.
"Get the doctor," Father said.
"No," I replied, turning to walk out of the room.
Just before the door closed, he shouted, "Sheep!"
In his former bedroom there was a rectangle of dust on the floor, slightly smaller than the dimensions of the bed. I cleared out the room, putting the two chairs, the bedside cabinets and Mother's dressing table in the living room. In a corner of the bedroom I wriggled two fingers in under the carpet. "Don't glue it," I heard Mother say an eternity ago as Father was about to go down on his knees with a jar of glue in his left hand and a brush in his right, our heads already spinning from the pungent fumes. "Don't glue it, ten years from now I'll want new carpets." The underlay crumbled under my fingers. I rolled up the carpet and carried it through the milking parlor to the middle of the yard, where suddenly I didn't know what to do with it. I let it drop, just where I was standing. Startled by the surprisingly loud bang, a few jackdaws flew up out of the trees that line the yard.
The bedroom floor was covered with sheets of hardboard, rough side up. After quickly vacuuming the room, I used a broad, flat brush to paint the hardboard with gray primer, without bothering to sand it first. While doing the last section, in front of the door, I noticed the sheep.
Now I'm in the kitchen, waiting for the paint to dry. Only then will I be able to get the gloomy painting of a flock of black sheep down off the wall. He wants to look at his sheep, so I will hammer a nail into the wall on one side of the window and hang the painting for him. The kitchen door is open and the bedroom door is open too. From where I am sitting, I can look past the dressing table and the two bedside cabinets at the painting on the wall, but it is so dark and discolored that I can't make out any sheep at all, no matter how hard I try.
It's raining and a strong wind has blown the last leaves off the ash. November is no longer quiet with a fresh chill in the air. My parents' bedroom is my room now. I've painted the walls and ceiling white and given the hardboard sheets a second coat of primer. I've moved the chairs, Mother's dressing table and the bedside cabinets upstairs. I put one bedside cabinet next to Father's bed and stowed the rest in the spare room next to his bedroom: Henk's room.
The cows have been inside for two days now. They're restless during milking.
If the round hatch on top of the tanker had been open this morning, half the milk would have shot out like a geyser, that's how hard the tanker driver braked to avoid the rolled-up carpet that was still lying in the middle of the yard. He was swearing quietly to himself when I came into the milking parlor. There are two tanker drivers, and this was the older one, the gruff one. More or less my age, I think. A few more years' driving and he can retire.
Apart from the bed, my new bedroom is completely empty. I'm going to paint the woodwork: windows, door and skirting boards. I might do it the same color as the floor, but I'm not sure yet. I have a bluish gray in mind, the color of Lake IJssel on a summer's day with ominous storm clouds in the distance.
In what must have been late July or early August, two young lads went by in canoes. That doesn't happen often, the official canoeing routes don't pass my farm. Only ambitious canoeists get this far. It was hot and they had taken off their shirts, the muscles in their arms and shoulders gleamed in the sunlight. I was standing at the side of the house, unseen, and watched them trying to cut each other off. Their paddles slapped against the yellow water lilies. The canoe in front turned sideways and got trapped with its nose against the bank of the canal. The lad glanced up. "Look at this farm," he said to his friend, a redhead with freckles and sunburnt shoulders, "it's timeless. It's here on this road now, but it might just as well be 1967 or 1930."
The redhead subjected my farm, the trees and the field the donkeys were grazing at the time to a careful appraisal. I pricked up my ears. "Yes," he said after a long while, "those donkeys are old-fashioned, all right."
His friend backed his canoe away from the bank and turned it in the right direction. He said something in reply, something I couldn't make out because a redshank had started to kick up a fuss. A late redshank: most of them are gone by the end of July. The redhead set off after him slowly, still staring at my two donkeys. I was stuck with nowhere to go, there was nothing I could possibly be working on around that side of the house. I stood there motionless and held my breath.
He saw me. I thought he was going to say something to the other lad, his lips parted and he turned his head, but he didn't say a word. He looked and left me unseen by his friend. A little later they turned into Opperwoud Canal and the yellow water lilies drifted back together. I walked up on to the road to watch them paddle off. After a few minutes I could no longer hear their voices. I tried to see my farm through their eyes. "1967," I said quietly, shaking my head. Why that particular year? One of the boys had named the year, the other, the redhead with freckles and burnt shoulders, had seen it. It was very hot that day, midafternoon, almost time to bring in the cows. My legs felt unexpectedly heavy and the afternoon was empty and lifeless.
From The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. Translated from Dutch by David Colmer. Published by Archipelago and used with permission of the publisher.