PEN Atlas Editor, Tasja Dorkofikis talks to Gerbrand Bakker about his novel, The Detour, walking in Wales for two weeks, and translating Emily Dickinson
Wales, and in particular Snowdonia, are hugely important in your novel: the sense of space, the atmosphere, the animal world. Do you know Wales well? Why did you choose that area?
Yes, I know Wales very well. Only once was I in the south of Wales, where I did – all alone – the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Which is far too long: I walked for two weeks with the Atlantic on my left hand side. That was quite boring after a while. North Wales I like best, it is often almost like a Mediterranean country. I’ve been going there for years and years, and I have this strange habit of wanting to climb Mount Snowdon at least once a year. The country is old, feels old, almost ancient. Timeless in a way, and that is – I realise now – exactly the reason why I had to set the story of The Detour right there.
Emily Dickinson is one of the ghosts haunting the novel. Is she a poet you have read a lot? Could you tell us a bit more about why you chose her?
Ever since I formed a ‘poets’ society’ with two friends – this was somewhere in the early Nineties – I have loved this one particular poem, the motto-poem of the novel. We translated English poems, and this one was most elusive. We just did not understand it, we could make no satisfactory translation. After a while we also started to write our own poems. Later I read more Dickinson, and especially when I re-read her for this novel, I found that quite a few poems are, well, not so good. But I think that maybe I wrote the entire novel to be able – through the main character – finally to make a translation that comes close to what it should be, or wants to be. I’ve always found it very hard to accept a story in commission: I did not dare to accept it, for I thought: suppose I get no ideas? Suppose I cannot finish it in time? But since a year or so I’ve dared to accept such commissions, because I’ve found out that I am able to write a short story on the basis of a poem that I once wrote. And, in this case, possibly a complete novel…
Emilie is full of grief. Your previous novel, The Twin, explored a similar subject. Do you feel that we can get close to the essence of suffering by describing it?
Yes. Describing, that’s the right word. Not explain, not psychologize. Show through action, not so much through thoughts or little philosophies. Readers can – if they want to, of course – have thoughts or little philosophies. I love atmosphere in a novel, and I think that to create an atmosphere, you do this best by describing things, and then preferably as sober and restrained as possible. It’s a wonder that most of my novels exceed 200 pages…
Apart from Emily Dickinson, there are other ghosts in the novel: the uncle, who nearly committed suicide; Mrs Evans, who used to live in the Welsh house; the gradually disappearing geese. Emilie looks at herself through the past, for example by thinking that she can smell Mrs Evan’s smell on herself. Why did you decide to make these past figures so prominent in the novel?
They just came. With Mrs Evans for instance, I did not think in advance: let’s have her invade the body of Emilie, as a symbol or foreshadowing of what would happen to her. She just came, and as she was there, her presence got stronger and stronger. And this uncle, well, that was actually the chapter that originally started the book, until my publisher suggested that that chapter be moved to chapter 4. This is something by the way that more or less really happened to one of my uncles. And I don’t do this a lot: use real people or real life in my novels.
The novel is partly about loneliness, and our inability to really connect with the others. Yet Emilie meets a boy, who stays in the house with her, and there is a sense of closeness. Is language essential to being close?
No, not at all, I think. Remember the song ‘Enjoy the silence’ by Depeche Mode: “All I ever wanted/ All I ever needed /Is here in my arms/ Words are very unnecessary /They can only do harm
Vows are spoken/ To be broken/ Feelings are intense/ Words are trivial/ Pleasures remain/ So does the pain/ Words are meaningless/ And forgettable.”
I quite like this song, especially the acoustic harmonium version of it. Maybe I am not normal, but for me non-verbal language is much more important than spoken language. But: people want to talk to each other or have to talk to each other. And that’s also what Bradwen and Emilie do, but I think that both of them would rather do everything in silence, Emilie more than Bradwen, but still.
Your novel is translated from the Dutch. How closely do you work with your translator, David Colmer?
For this novel very close, because I woke up one night, almost two years ago now, almost in a panic. I thought: one cannot translate this novel, there is far too much language-stuff in it, and it is about the translation of an English poem into Dutch! So I contacted David and he stayed very calm and said: “That’s my problem, relax.” He is wonderful. But for the first time I read a translation of one of my novels before it was sent to Harvill Secker. And we worked on it, I had some comments, and then David had counter-arguments, and so on. It was nice to do it like this.
The Twin brought you much international recognition. Was it difficult to write a new novel after winning the IMPAC? Or was it in some way liberating to know that you have that official stamp of approval?
The Detour was already finished when The Twin was awarded with the IMPAC. It came out in October of 2010 here in Holland. So: no. But: since The Detour (or Ten White Geese in the USA) I haven’t written anything, apart from my weblog and the occasional story or column. I simply did not feel like it. What I did do in the end with the prize money was to buy a house with land in The Eifel, Germany. Since the first of December last year I own it, and I go there a lot. One part of the house will be renovated later this spring, and there I will have a – I hope – wonderful, big writing room with only a wood burning stove in it, accessible via a staircase, outside the house. I’ve been having some problems with depression and stuff, and now I feel just fine, writing is not a part of my daily life, but I do feel like I have to have the feeling of wanting to write, if you know what I mean. Usually I’m very happy when I write. I work like a horse then: I don’t think or analyse much, I just move forward until the book is finished.
What are your literary influences if any? Who do you enjoy reading now?
Carson McCullers is, come to think of it, one of my influences. I love the way she writes, very subdued, very brooding, very ‘Southern’. And she uses beautiful language. Lord of Dark Places by Hal Bennett is a book that has in a way ‘unleashed’ me; that was a book (also Southern USA) that made me realise that one is permitted to write everything one wants to write. And here in Holland, J.J. Voskuil, who wrote, among other things, Het Bureau (The Office): a novel consisting of seven volumes, in total 5000 pages, about, well, nothing much. But at the same time about everything. And that is what I love about it.
PEN Atlas promotes international literature in the UK, a lot of it in translation. Who else from your country would you recommend to British readers and British publishers?
J.J. Voskuil. The first part of this 7-volume novel has come out in Germany last year, and I believe they want to move on…
Interview conducted by Tasja Dorkofikis, Editor, PEN Atlas
Gerbrand Bakker is a Dutch writer. In 2010, he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the English translation of his novel, The Twin (Boven is het stil).