THE TWIN by Gerbrand Bakker and THE DINNER by Herman Koch

In the last few weeks I have read two Dutch books. Naturally, I did not read the books in Dutch, I read the English translations. This is big news, as these are the second and third original Dutch novels that I have read.

The English title is THE TWIN and the Dutch original title is BOVEN IS HET STIL (UPSTAIRS IT IS QUIET). Gebrand Bakker came to my attention because he won the 2010 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, for best novel translated into English. When I saw that it was a Dutch author, I knew I had to check it out.

First of all, let me say that I really loved this book. This is so beautifully written, with a sure pace and a dry sense of humor. The setting is so real that at times, I thought I was living on a farm (and this convinced me, one more time, that I could not live on a farm). Henk, age 55, lives with his dying father on a farm that has cows, sheep, chickens and two donkeys. Over 30 years ago, his twin brother was killed and Henk became the heir to the farm. This was something he did not want for his life as he was in college at the time. For all those years, he never left the small village and never gave up farming. The son of an old friend comes to stay with Henk as his helper and this shakes up Henk’s tidy little world. He has never confronted his father, he still has the box with his schoolbooks in the back of the closet, and he has never had an intimate relationship in his life.

The book is full of characters who come to the farm, the dairy truck driver, the livestock dealer, the neighbor and her two young boys, and the vivid memories of Henks’s brother…they are all here. Bakker does such a brilliant job of giving the reader a feel for the land, for the winter and spring, and for the sense of isolation and bareness in this life.

If this is an example of what the Netherlands has to offer for literature, I am quite excited. And I just have to hope that more books will be translated into English. The English translation THE TWIN, is also available in England and the United States.

THE DINNER (HET DINER) by Herman Koch is very different from the first book. This is a dark, thrilling and sadly humorous story about two couples having dinner in Amsterdam. That is such a simple description of this novel. I have often said that a great book is like the unpeeling of an onion, and this is a great big onion with many layers.

The couples have teenage sons and the plan is to talk about the horrific act the boys have committed and how to save the boys and the families. The theme of this story is to what extent will a parent go to in order to protect their child. In this case, pretty damn far.

Koch has written a story that takes you on a ride that continues to not surprise you, but stun you. It is a perfect example of a “page turner” as it will draw you into this shocking and also, enjoyable onion.

It was not my intention to read these books back to back, but it was a perfect thing to do. Here are two books that could not be more different in all sorts of ways. One is a rural story with complex characters that face the daily life of a farm and of also starting your life over again. You could say this is a representation of Dutch farm life. And then you have two families living in the big city who are dealing with anger, deception, and parenting. There is much in this novel about Dutch life and culture and that is where there is much humor.

THE DINNER has received rave reviews by the Dutch and British critics. And it will be published in America in early 2013.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and will make an effort to find their other novels, IF they are translated into English. You don’t have to live in The Netherlands to read great Dutch writers, it just takes a little more effort to find them. Please check them out.

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  • Aledys Ver  On August 9, 2012 at 10:32 am

    These are excellent recommendations, Jane, both books sound really interesting. I don’t know if I’ll resist until October to read Het Diner 🙂 Fortunately, I have enough material to keep me busy in the next couple of weeks and I’ve already put the book in my hand luggage, out of my way 🙂

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