I’ve just spent a few days in a place called Ballybunion on the west coast of Ireland, famous for golf, seaweed baths and “champagne air,” where the locals always have time to trade stories over a pint of Guinness. They say things like “Grand morning, isn’t it?” And you find yourself replying enthusiastically: “Grand, just grand!” Nearby is Listowel, a picturesque town, which is the scene for Ireland’s oldest literary festival. It is at Writer’s Week where I meet Gerbrand Bakker, an exquisite writer of prose, who has won several literary awards, and who has worked as a speed-skating instructor, sub-titler of soap operas and landscape gardener at various points in his life.
Gerbrand’s first novel (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer) The Twin, was praised widely for the restraint of its prose, interiority of emotional landscape, and the surprisingly sharp touches of humour. Set on a Dutch farm, it tells multiple stories of loneliness and regret, and any love that is hinted at is never quite consummated. Gerbrand credits the tautness of his prose to The Bold and the Beautiful. “These characters, they go on talking, so much blah-blah-blah, but when you’re writing subtitles you have only two lines on screen, so you better get to the essence quick.”
His latest novel The Detour (shortlisted for this year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is a similarly bleak and poignant tale about a Dutch woman who is in self-imposed exile in a cottage in North Wales. She strikes up a relationship with a young man and his dog, and again, while there is great physicality in describing the Welsh countryside and the bodies of his characters, any attempt at wholeness is always out of reach.
Gerbrand tells me that The Detour was written out of a time of great depression. “I’ve been told I’ve probably always been depressed but just didn’t know it.” For a depressed person, he’s pretty jocular. He tells me how he initially wanted to write books for children after visiting friends who wrote children’s books. “They had such a nice house, nice art on the walls, nice wine, and I thought if they can live like this writing children’s books, I could try it too…. But, it’s very hard to write for children,” he exclaims. “I can’t be on my knees.”
Gerbrand tells me that he hasn’t written for four years, but he doesn’t seem overly worried about his lack of productivity. In the German countryside there is a house with a garden, a dog, and a lovely writing room complete with logwood burner waiting for him. His previous books were written in a six-month frenzied fever. He compares it to entering the zone when speed-skating… you’re only aware of the first circles around the ice, and then you keep going and going until time falls away. Entering a Gerbrand Bakker novel is a similar feeling. From the first sentence you’re drawn into a particular mood, an atmosphere that is unlike any other, which is sustained for the entire novel like a single breath. And like his characters, you’re left feeling that no matter how grand the human experience, the landscape that surrounds us is just that much grander.