A gem of a first novel
Gerbrand Bakker’s Boven is het stil (The Twin) is ostensibly a book about the countryside, as seen through the eyes of a farmer, but in the end it’s about such universal matters as the possibility or impossibility of taking life into one’s own hands.
It was always the twins, Henk and Helmer, in that order. When father’s boy, Henk, died in a car accident, there was no way Helmer could continue his studies in Dutch language and literature. He resigned himself to taking over his brother’s role on the farm and spending the rest of his days ‘with his head under a cow’. The announcement ‘I put Father upstairs’ not only marks the beginning of the novel but also heralds the transformation which the main character is to undergo. After his old, worn-out father has been transferred upstairs, Helmer sets about furnishing the rest of the house according to his own minimal preferences. ‘A double bed and a duvet’, advises Ada, who lives next door, with a sly look. So that’s what he buys. Then Riet appears on the scene, the woman who was once engaged to marry his twin brother. Helmer briefly entertains the illusion that she has returned for him. Actually, she’s come back for Henk: her son Henk, that is.
Could he live with them for a while, on the farm? The arrival of the boy has repercussions: not only in bringing about suppressed eroticism, but also in rousing Helmer’s manifest loneliness, for soon he will be completely alone. Henk leaves, to Helmer’s great relief, and at last the old father dies. In the final part of the novel, Helmer and the old hired hand Jaap - the only person who’d ever taken any notice of him - are in Denmark, the ‘promised land’. He’s standing on a pebbly beach as the sun sets.
Boven is het stil is an impressive first novel. Bakker’s style is lucid and spare. He writes sentences like ‘He talked, I listened. It was a typical Henk-and-Helmer evening, and not vice-versa.’ He also has a dry sense of humour. The landscape, the weather - which is everywhere - are all succinctly captured: ‘A drizzle is not much more than fog with delusions of grandeur’.