Monday, October 5, 2020

My Farm, My Rules

Another grim novel, Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin (2008), made a strong impression on me, enough that I've read it twice and probably will read it again.  I'm not sure the plot contains any spoilers, but I'm going to summarize it here, so be forewarned.  (There's a good interview with Bakker here.)

The Twin is narrated by Helmer, a Dutch farmer in late middle age, who lives with and cares for his ailing father.  The novel begins with Helmer moving his father to an upstairs bedroom and taking over the downstairs bedroom for himself.  Partly this is an assertion of his will over his father's: decades earlier, the literature-minded Helmer had hoped to escape the farm for college, but his twin brother Henk was killed in an auto accident: Henk was the designated and apparently willing heir to the farm, and Helmer felt he had no choice but to help his parents keep it going.  There had been a farmhand on whom teenaged Helmer had a reciprocated crush, but his father figured it out and sent the man packing.  Doomed to a life of milking cows and shearing sheep, Helmer let his resentment seethe, aggravated by his father's abusiveness.  But as his father fails, he can no longer impose his will on anyone, and Helmer savors the power he now has, though he's not sure what to do with it.  He has a few friends, mainly the trucker who collects each day's milk, and a neighbor woman with two young sons, but mostly he has no social life.

Suddenly he's contacted by his brother's fiancee, whom he hasn't seen since the funeral.  Her teenage son Henk is a handful.  She asks Helmer to take Henk on as a farmhand, for reasons as tangled as Helmer's acceptance. The boy is no happier to be stuck out in the country than Helmer was in his youth, and they have a mildly rocky time until Helmer's father dies and Henk rides off to make his own way.  The lost farmhand returns, and he and Helmer start a relationship.  I found when I reread the book that this was less explicit than I remembered, but at any rate they go on a road trip to Denmark together, and Helmer finally has his own life.

The Twin is less grim than The Pull of the Stars, but it's still permeated by sadness, loneliness, anger, a life sacrificed to circumstance and family pressure.  I was intrigued when I learned that it had been adapted for film in 2013, as It's All So Quiet (a closer approximation of the original Dutch title) so I tracked down the DVD.  In some ways it's a good adaptation: it catches the mood of the novel and Helmer's frustration and isolation, and Jeroen Willens, the actor who plays him, is well-cast and does a fine job.  Film heightens some of the story's themes: when Helmer hauls his father clumsily up a narrow stairway to his new room, the two men are face to face, forced into physical intimacy despite their mutual dislike. Willens conveys the uneasiness of a man so used to isolation that he's not sure he wants to be close to people anymore.

But at the same time the film is frustrating, like most adaptations only more so.  The director, Nanouk Leopold, is known for her minimalist work, but It's All So Quiet goes beyond bare simplicity to truncation.  If I hadn't read the book I think I'd have found it very hard to follow.  Young Henk, for example, simply shows up unexplained.  The farmhand is never mentioned and never appears.  A different love interest for Helmer is spliced in.  When the end credits rolled I noticed that the film was dedicated to the memory of the lead actor, Jeroen Willens, who died at the age of 50 the year the film was released.  So I wonder if he died before the film was finished, and it had to be patched together from the footage Leopold had completed.  But maybe not; I haven't found any information about it.  Maybe someone who hadn't read the book would be less confused than I was, since the omissions wouldn't be obvious to them.  It's All So Quiet is still worth watching, especially if, like me, you enjoy bare-bones films with little action or exposition; I appreciate it as it is, but I think it needs a bit more.