Language as a remedy
In the novel Hersenschimmen, Bernlef has depicted reality through the eyes of a man who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Maarten Klein, a Dutchman who has emigrated to the US, suddenly realizes he is losing grip on his once so familiar life, whether he likes it or not.
Surrounded by a landscape filling up with snow it appears all tracks are being erased as he witnesses how reality is coming apart at the seams into chunks of isolated observations. Language appears to be the only remedy he has to give sense to all these fragmentary impressions.
That is why he names as meticulously as he can, all that he thinks, feels and sees. So too, had his father noted down the air temperatures in carefully kept graphs, in search of a system that must somehow lie behind the facts. The quickly deteriorating Maarten knows there have always been explanations as to the facts of his life, but now he can no longer reach them. Past and present, appearance and reality become one. He confuses his wife Vera with his first love, Karen, then with a whore, and then with his mother. While out for a walk he breaks into a deserted building thinking he has to take down the minutes of a meeting. Slowly but surely he loses grip on his final mainstay: his language ability. His sentences become shorter, he can no longer come up with the right words and finally even the voice in his head falls silent.
Even though Hersenschimmen deals indirectly with the problems of writing it has also been widely read in medical circles whose professional concerns are dementia and aphasia. It was made into a feature film.