Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.
For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”
But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.
In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.
In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.
On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.
There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.
By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.