'till judgement break'
translated by David Colmer
Bakker's debut novel The Twin was one of my favourite reads from last year and also won the Impac Prize, the world's biggest literary award at €100,000 (I think I can guess which of those two accolades he was happiest about). It was a supreme example of what I have found in my limited experience to be a feature of Dutch writing. Prose that for the most part is as flat and uninflected as the landscape of that country so that telling words or phrases poke their heads up for the reader to notice and moments of great drama and tension seem to be waiting for their moment to jump up and grab the reader by the neck. Bakker may have chosen a different terrain and locale for his next novel but there is still something of that style about the writing, this time joined by a faintly hallucinatory feeling and the slight disjoint that comes from placing his heroine in a country where she is forced to communicate in her second language.
A Dutch woman rents a remote farmhouse in rural Wales, paying upfront, and sets about adding some homely touches to a building which still carries the smell of the old woman who had been its previous owner and whose garden contains the ten geese that were once hers. She is on the run from something. Most obviously the scandal of her recent affair with a first year student but also from her work on the poet Emily Dickinson and from something else that she cannot escape, something within that is only hinted at to begin with. She simply packed her car with some clothes, a single mattress and a coffee table and made her way across on a ferry, driving on until she reached Wales. In thinking about the reasons for her flight she is reminded of one of her relatives of whom she was particularly fond.
One day her uncle had walked into the pond, the pond in the large front garden of the hotel he worked at. The water refused to come up any higher than his hips...He must have judged the water to be deeper...Her being here had something to do with that uncle. At least, she had begun to suspect as much. Scarcely a day passed without her thinking of him, seeing him before her in the smooth water of the hotel pond. So far gone that he hardly realised that hip-deep water wasn't enough to drown in. Incapable of simply toppling over. All of the pockets of the clothes he was wearing stuffed with the heaviest objects he had been able to find in the hotel kitchen.
Disoriented enough by her circumstances as well as where she has found herself, little oddities mark her stay. The number of geese slowly dwindles, presumably prey to a local fox; she is bitten by a badger whilst sunning herself nakedly on a rock, an event disbelieved by everyone she mentions it to, even the chain-smoking doctor who attends to her wound. Then a young man literally tumbles into her life and his overnight stay extends from one day into the next until he is cooking and gardening with her and a christmas tree is erected in the house. Meanwhile back in Holland her husband strikes up an odd friendship with a policeman during his attempts to trace his wife and the two men set sail on the same ferry line that brought her to the UK and they make their way (with the annoying assistance of their Dutch satnav) towards Wales.
The peripheral characters remain sketches; the baffled husband, the comedic parents, the threatening neighbour, the loyal and doting young man; it is only the woman who really captures the reader's attention, partly because of that secret she is carrying. It is also because from the very beginning we sense that she is surrounded, by the men who define her life, by the unfamiliar flora and fauna of Wales, prey to the natural order around her. She is also an intensely physical presence and Bakker writes brilliantly about her body; its pains, needs, smells and sensations. When she first arrives into the solace of the farmhouse there is something almost feverish about her, either too hot or too cold, filled with memories and finding comfort with a hand between her legs.
Although there were no neighbours, she kept seeing the dark, uncurtained window and herself lying there. Aroused woman alone fantasising about things long past, things she would be better off forgetting. That unspoilt body, lean and lithe, the powerful arse, the hollows behind the clavicles, the jutting pelvis. The selfishness, the energy and thoughtlessness...[she]thought about him sitting in front of her later, amongst the other students, one of many, with the face of a sulking child. A spiteful egotistical child, and as ruthless as children can be.
The incident with the badger is preceded by her undressing completely to sun herself on a rock like a lizard. In another episode she walks out into the waist-deep water of a pond and 'understood perfectly why her uncle had been so indecisive in that hotel pond: the place itself had robbed him of the ability to decide.'
'Was this it, what Emily Dickinson had done for almost her entire adult life? Had she tried to hold back time, making it bearable and less lonely too perhaps, by capturing it in hundreds of poems?
Like the poet she studies and is in the process of translating she is trying to hold back time, why else run away from home if not to avoid its realities? Having left 'Like an old cat that wants to be left in peace' the farmhouse offers something like a stay of execution both physically and emotionally but we always sense that time is running out. The 'vague but persistent sense of deterioration' isn't limited to just her body but her mind too and there is a small element of suspense as to whether her husband will arrive in time to make a difference or what role exactly her house guest will play. As with The Twin it is those notions and emotions which remain barely expressed that truly intrigue. This novel doesn't quite deliver on its promise and is prone to repeat some its images thus robbing them of their power, but Bakker is a really interesting writer, finding power in repression and creating with great sensitivity a character we cannot help wanting to aid like an animal in peril. One of the problems in pinning a novel on the work of a poet as concise as Dickinson is that even someone as good at writing in spare prose as Bakker can only highlight, particularly to a non-poetry reader like me, just how few words are sometimes required to communicate an idea. Here then is the poem that the woman is translating throughout her stay and that might best encapsulate the novel's themes of solace, escape and peace.
Ample Make This Bed by Emily Dickinson
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.