Writer’s raw grief for a life lost too soon
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.