NWR Issue 101

Aurora Irrealis

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred – the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real)....

Wikipedia, 17 June 2013

Although the poetry in this grammar definition struck me, ‘an exploration of the subjunctive’ is a phrase unlikely to make a novel’s blurb. Yet in a way this sums up Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. This latest winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is set in Eryri/Snowdonia, as Bakker’s multilingual cultural courtesy would have it. The latter is not quite impeccably sensitive, however, since perhaps too often are the locals rude weirdoes, and fears of ‘Immigrants. Taking over’ too readily passed from native to incomer. But in such a marvelous, mysterious, comic and nature-imbued novel I could even overlook a terminal case of AA-Gillitis. In generous mode, I put Bakker’s milder trollisms down to paranoia induced by the protagonist’s illness. Returning to the subjunctive and a sober mood, were I to make alternative title suggestions, they might include the grammatically yearning Ample Make this Bed, the first line of the novel’s epigraph and of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘A Country Burial’, which is The Detour’s fulcrum. Or, to risk sounding really geeky, I could employ the jussive subjunctive mood and propose Let Me Be.

Gravely ill, affected in body and mind by an uncle’s early inappropriate attentions, Agnes has been socially and maritally disgraced. Fleeing Amsterdam, she winds up in the Welsh mountains, like an old cat seeking a nest to rest her bones in. A literary translator and academic, sacked over an affair with a first-year student, Agnes (known as Emily or Emilie for the most part) is ostensibly working on a PhD seeking to discredit Emily Dickinson. She has not divulged the results of a recent fertility test to her husband Rutger, and keeps from him her (unspecified) sickness, whose details she also hides from the local doctor (one of the many parallels with Dickinson’s life), while remaining attuned to her own body’s betrayals. Agnes describes the famous Emily as ‘a puling woman who hid herself away in her house and garden, wordlessly insisting with everything she did and did not do that people should just ignore her, yet fishing for validation like a whimpering child….’ Yet in the end, Agnes acknowledges Emily as an alter ego. It is only then that she manages to complete a translation of ‘A Country Burial’, having recognized, as she creates her own artwork of a (Spoiler Alert!) deathbed, the subjunctive mood at the poem’s heart, with its expression of ‘wish’, ‘necessity’ and ‘action that has not yet occurred’.

Agnes’ wish to die grows from shame and depression into stubborn dignity. There are obstacles to fulfilling it. These make The Detour more subtle than I’ve so far suggested: it is much more fun than a grammar guide, a gloomfest or a crib to Dickinson. There are, however, nerdy kicks to be had from spotting parallels such as the ‘white sports socks’ Agnes dons for her deathbed (Dickinson loved white frocks and was buried in one). The poet loved to communicate through letters so Bakker turns that on its head by assigning the only written correspondence, a three-line inscribed postcard, to the estranged couple. Rutger’s attempted retrieval of his wife is presented as a calling back home by her parents, echoing Dickinson’s last ever letter, whose contents, ‘Called Back’, is also her epitaph.

Annihilation may be sought, but it’s not so easily attained. Agnes is hampered by her persistent penchant for much younger men, awakened, Rutger surmises, at the time of her diagnosis. A Welsh incarnation of her sex-death complex arrives in twenty-year-old Bradwen Jones, graced with woolly hat and squint but apparently tempting, even to a woman gripped by abdominal pain and distracted by her own ‘old-woman smell’. An aside: the unfamiliar boy’s name Bradwen suggests for reasons of plot, the Welsh brad (treachery), but its feminine suffix makes it one of the author’s few cultural mis-steps, alongside the translator’s use of the Americanised ‘already’ rather than ‘yet’ (‘Have you already brought in the pan?’).

Other hindrances for Agnes are a gaggle of geese she comes to admire, a husband on a bromance roadtrip heading her way, and a sheepdog who loves her ‘alpha female’ qualities. Also: her chain-smoking (local weirdo) doctor from whom she coaxes an illegal painkiller prescription, some questionably poisoned lamb, and a race to plant a rose garden for a spring she may never see. Notwithstanding Bradwen’s issues as a motherless boy and his mountaintop moment of neglect, Agnes musters reserves of cruelty to shunt him off her path, such extremes being unavoidable for a woman set on embracing the solitary aspects of a good death: ‘Be its mattress straight, / Be its pillow round; / Let no sunrise’ yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.’

Spookily, many of The Detour’s themes occur in NWR 101. Bakker’s coupling of animal and human fates is present in Jem Poster’s story, ‘Snowscape’, in which a widower watches an ailing cow in a snowstorm. How to loosen life’s grasp is Claire Booker’s concern in ‘Is This What a Mother’s Bones Become?’: ‘Below, she’s barely / dressed; legs clamped like a child who badly // needs to let go of the body’s tyranny.’ And though hers seems a healthy body, the subject of ‘The Woman Who Walks Naked’ by Katrina Naomi, is as attuned to it as Agnes, and to canine attentions to boot: ‘Village dogs scoot towards her, sniffing her shins. / It’s when she passes the café that the shout goes up.’ A preening female creature is also the subject of Mark Tredinnick’s poem, ‘Rufous Fantail’, in which the Australian bird ‘stands there in plain sight / in the blue light at the back / of his mind – her fuck me boots, // Her love-me eyes.’ In Roz Goddard’s ‘Dressing’, NWR’s first short story in a hundred words, some shade of sexual attention is Dad’s objective, but the jury’s out on who’s speaking, girl or boy. Finally, throughout Shani Rhys James’ paintings for her exhibition, The Rivalry of Flowers (Aberystwyth Arts Centre), what stayed in my mind was not so much the purported female subject (often an observing child), but voices off, surrounding sensual hits like the scent of a lady lately left the room. By definition, wallpaper is background, but this stuff is in your face, with a grip like the triffids’. Jasmine Donahaye’s Mr Goldstein in ‘The Boarding House’, however, is certain that the girl, after all, is creepier than those florid interiors. This poem, for the ‘Florilingua’ installation at the exhibition this autumn, is published exclusively in these pages. Let Mr Goldstein have the last word:

Under the glamorous ceiling gone yellow with tar,
he waits for the child’s mother, muttering
about the deliveries of hothouse flowers.

He says the perpetual smell
has made him sick. But it’s that child,
the silent child: she’s what’s not right.

‘The Boarding House’, Jasmine Donahaye

The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch De omweg (2010, Uitgeverij Cossee) by David Colmer, was published by Harvill Secker in 2012 and reissued earlier this year by Vintage.


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