Tragedy and powerlessness
Juni (‘June’), the second novel by Gerbrand Bakker, begins astonishingly enough from the perspective of the former Dutch queen, Juliana, who on 17 June 1969 paid a working visit to the district of Wieringerwaard. Queen Juliana, known for occasionally breaking with protocol, abruptly turns her attention to a woman and child arriving late, by bicycle.
The Kaan family, to which the mother and child belong, is central to the rest of the book. Forty years on, Anna Kaan has ensconced herself in the straw on the top floor of the old barn, with a bottle of advocaat and a packet of her favourite biscuits.
Granddaughter Dieke, five years old, wonders why grandma refuses to come down. Bit by bit, from continually changing perspectives, the reader learns about the drama that took place on the day of the royal visit. Anna’s two-year-old daughter was run over by the village baker and killed. Interior monologues reveal how each of the characters experienced that day and how it affected the rest of their lives.
Now, in baking hot weather, two of the three brothers are tidying the little girl’s grave. They all seem to have failed in life. Klaas, the eldest son and the only one married with a child, does practically nothing these days. The cows have gone and the farmhouse is slowly falling apart for lack of repairs. The youngest son, Johan, speaks slowly and uninhibitedly as the result of a motorcycle accident. Son Jan, in some ways the central figure in the book, has moved away to live on the island of Texel.
As the day nears its end, father and sons make one final attempt to get mother down from the hayloft, but only the empty advocaat bottle ends up on the ground floor. Johan is returned to his sheltered apartment. Jan catches the train for the ferry home, although he seems to be having second thoughts.
Bakker’s concise, sometimes rather languid style is used to great effect in evoking the world of a village in North Holland forty years ago: porridge for breakfast, the baker’s new Volkswagen van, the children dressed in hand-knitted cardigans for the queen’s visit.
As in Boven is het stil (The Twin), Juni has a farm setting, so little is said and emotions are never expressed. Bakker’s unemotional style guards against sentimentality – we are after all dealing with the death of a child – without being any the less moving for that. We see family relationships that have run aground, leaving nothing but incomprehension and stifled rage, but as in his debut there are moments to make us laugh or smile.