Ten White Geese
nolead begins By Gerbrand Bakker
Translated by David Colmer
Penguin. 240 pp. $15.
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by John Timpane
Introducing Gerbrand Bakker: He is Dutch, by trade a gardener. In 2010, his piercing, unexpected, original novel The Twin literally amazed the literary world by, out of next to nowhere, winning the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world's biggest prize for an individual writer. Even with the deserving competition that year, The Twin deserved to win.
Ten White Geese is not a twin to The Twin, but it shares the laconic restraint that made The Twin something new.
In Bakker's novels, we must watch and be patient, learn how to understand; no one is coming to tell us. There will be clues, surprises, apparently random disjunctions. Characters, while soft-spoken, speak well for themselves eventually.
The central figure of Ten White Geese is Agnes, but she often calls herself Emilie, in homage to the American poet Emily Dickinson. Agnes/Emilie has left her job in the Netherlands for a rented cottage in Wales. She tries to translate the beautifully simple Dickinson poem "A Country Burial":
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise' yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
It's hard. Translation always is. Dickinson haunts this novel, as does the problem of translation, carrying across.
Clearly, Emilie has trouble translating herself for others. She has problems with Rhys, the property's caretaker, or is he? Her frustration with the Welsh boils up hilariously: "What is it with you people? Can't anyone here tell the difference between Dutch and German?"
She also runs afoul of the chain-smoking doctor in town. She badgers him for painkillers:
'Doesn't it matter, your smoking? Is it irrelevant?'
His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. 'My wife complains about it.' He cleared his throat, then started coughing.
'But you don't let her stop you?'
'No. Is anyone stopping you?'
'No. I'm alone. Completely alone. Did you make a record of my last visit?'
'Destroy it. Forget that I'm here now.'
We learn much about the doctor, and much - but not all we want to know - about Agnes/Emilie. Narrative is, largely, the act of withholding, and Bakker scatters bread on the path in unexpected ways. It feels very much the way an adult sees life: open, with delicious stretches during which you simply have to be, not guess. The reader is invited to a moral test: to show the patience it takes to let these people happen.
And then there's Bradwen, a boy who appears one day at her door with his dog, Sam. Bradwen is something else, and, as we find, something else again.
Everyone, starting with Agnes/Emilie, has something to hide. There will be betrayals, reversals, disappointments, passions. Even the geese perplex: "The geese were huddled together in front of the shelter. In front of it, never inside it. Stupid animals." (There's also humor, largely in the saga of Agnes/Emilie's husband, who, with the help of a gay cop, goes after her.)
Bakker's work is sometimes compared to that of writers such as Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia) or Paul Harding (author of the 2010 Pulitzer-winner Tinkers). Bakker and Petterson books do share certain traits: low-key narration, mixing the gentle and the stark; mild humor; merciless grasp of the tough and the dark. Plus an ear for dialogue.
The world they depict would be bleak except for an abiding, humane concern for the characters and what their lives mean to them. In Ten White Geese, abiding humanity runs throughout. I have to say I foresaw much of what turns out - yet the sensation of learning, even when what is learned is not understood, was lovely.
You can overdo gentle and reserved. I know a poet who publishes a lot of anthologies. She has great taste, and each poem chosen is excellent - but it's also muted and reserved. Final product: 200 pages of muted, reserved poems. Swell.
In the same way, the quietistic approach of Bakker, Petterson, and others, while marvelous in itself, is not the only way to make a novel. Luckily for all of us, Ten White Geese takes us to authentic depths. We care, about Agnes/Emilie, about Emily Dickinson, about the Welsh, and, as Agnes/Emilie does, about the geese.