Writer’s raw grief for a life lost too soon

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Adri van der Hei­j­den is one of The Nether­lands’ most prom­i­nent nov­el­ists. At home and in Ger­many he is cel­e­brated for the multi-novel saga The Tooth­less Time, which fol­lows the char­ac­ter Al­bert Eg­berts, an al­ter-ego of the author, from his youth in Gel­drop through to his life in Am­s­ter­dam in the 1970s and 80s.

Now van der Hei­j­den (or AFTh, as he

is called by his fans) has been pub­lished in English for the first time thanks to Mel­bourne pub­lisher Scribe and Am­s­ter­dam-based Amer­i­can trans­la­tor Jonathan Reeder.

I don’t read Dutch, but Reeder’s ver­sion has an author­ity of voice that con­vinces me it is re­li­able.

The book cho­sen to in­tro­duce the author to an English-speak­ing au­di­ence, To­nio, won three of The Nether­lands’ ma­jor lit­er­ary awards and was a best­seller when it ap­peared in 2012.

It is not, how­ever, a novel, but an ac­count of the death of the author’s only child, To­nio, who in 2010 at the age of 21 was hit and killed by a car while rid­ing his bike home late one night in Am­s­ter­dam.

Van der Hei­j­den and his wife Miriam are left grap­pling with the ques­tion: How could some­thing so ab­surd hap­pen to our son? In an at­tempt to an­swer the unan­swer­able they em­bark on a jour­ney of grief and try to re­con­struct the last pe­riod of their son’s life, in­clud­ing track­ing down the mys­te­ri­ous Jenny with whom a ro­mance seemed to have been blos­som­ing dur­ing To­nio’s fi­nal weeks.

The book is sub­ti­tled A Re­quiem Mem­oir. Both the re­quiem and the mem­oir are acts of re­mem­brance, prayers for the safe­keep­ing of a loved one, tes­ta­ments to the life of some­one who no longer has a voice of their own.

This me­mo­rial does re­count the life of To­nio, but the dom­i­nant theme is that of doc­u­ment­ing the way two par­ents learn of, grieve for and come to terms with a tragic event.

The book was writ­ten not with hind­sight but in the months im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent. It has the raw­ness of a diary.

There is a de­fi­ance of so­ci­ety, which expects the griever to be get­ting on and com­ing to terms, as if the emo­tions of death could be ne­go­ti­ated: “The pain of the loss will not wear off ... As the years go by, un­til the day we die, the pain will only in­crease, fol­low­ing a fickle law that now, just a few weeks af­ter To­nio’s death, has al­ready made it­self known.’’

There is also, un­der­stand­ably, self-pity. ‘‘With To­nio’s death my life has demon­strated its use­less­ness. By dy­ing, he has care­lessly cast

off his fa­ther like a cloak. The one thing I am still good for ... is to pre­serve as much of his life as pos­si­ble.’’

Record­ing this death be­comes both a duty to To­nio and part of the strug­gle of griev­ing, and van der Hei­j­den finds he can­not not write about it. Al­though th­ese two strands are wo­ven to­gether skil­fully, and beau­ti­fully at times, the one that speaks the loud­est and re­mained in my mind was the record of the author’s own psy­cho­log­i­cal strug­gles.

The epi­graph to the book con­sists of two lines from Mac­beth: ‘‘Give sor­row words: the grief that does not speak / whis­pers the o’er­fraught heart, and bids it break.’’

In a poignant sec­tion where To­nio is ad­dressed di­rectly, as also in the pas­sages above, it is the be­wil­der­ment of his fa­ther that is most con­spic­u­ous.

‘‘To­nio, be­cause of you I’ve lost every­thing. My life. The thought of hav­ing you at my death- bed. Worldly goods were for your ben­e­fit ... My goals, my work, my at­tempts at main­tain­ing some­thing re­sem­bling a per­son­al­ity ... my whole life has drained into your grave.’’

I have one broad ob­jec­tion, and though it is un­likely to be shared by those for whom a book such as this de­serves to be read un­crit­i­cally, I feel it im­por­tant to state.

If in the Vic­to­rian age the artist suf­fered as a re­sult of the prud­ery of a pub­lic that made so many top­ics ta­boo, to­day the pen­du­lum has swung to the other ex­treme.

The ex­pec­ta­tion is that the author equates the reader with the psy­chol­o­gist and bares all in the name of art.

In the ab­sence of any other touch­stones in re­al­ity and so­ci­ety, there is a ten­decy to turn in­wards and to make self-ex­pres­sion the dom­i­nant value per se.

The at­tempt to cor­re­late it with a wider re­al­ity is of sec­ondary im­por­tance.

Thus, we are told of the progress of Adri and Miriam’s phys­i­cal in­ti­macy af­ter the death, their thoughts on how rel­a­tives and friends have re­sponded, as well as re­ceiv­ing a reg­u­lar tally of the num­ber of bot­tles of gin they con­sume to keep them­selves go­ing.

‘‘In si­lence. With­out look­ing over, I can hear from Miriam’s breath­ing that she’s go­ing to go to pieces, I ask: ‘Did you take your pill on time?’ ”

Af­ter 500 pages of such doc­u­men­ta­tion I be­gan to feel im­mune to pathos. I sin­cerely hope that record­ing this painful pe­riod has helped the author to grieve.

He has given sor­row words, but of­ten they are the im­me­di­ate words of a pri­vate jour­nal. I can’t help but feel that this is a strange choice to in­tro­duce van der Hei­j­den to English-speak­ing read­ers.

Si­mon West is a poet and critic.

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