Friday 9 September 2016

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83 ¼ Years Old

This absolutely delightful read was an impulse buy while I was in Melbourne recently. Bought on the cover alone really. Of course it wasn't that I hadn't taken enough books with me to Melbourne. Always fearful of being caught short I did take 6 books to a writers festival.

And read a mildly respectable two of those. 

And I bought/obtained nine more while I was there.

Actually it was ten... I missed one. 

I'm not quite sure why I was so keen to buy and then immediately read a book about an old man living in a Dutch nursing home. Although that Victor Meijer drawing on the cover helped, and glowing blurbs from Graeme Simsion (author of The Rosie Project- see my review) and John Boyne (I saw him speak in Sydney in May, and remain rather smitten) didn't hurt either. Flicking through the book randomly as we readers are wont to do my eyes touched on a random sentence: "There is a great buzz about plans for a euthanasia clinic." The back cover told me that Hendrik Groen was a "cultural phenomenon in his native Netherlands". That's it, I was in. 

I thought that a diary format might be a good book to read on my journey home from Melbourne (an all day extravaganza) and it was. I started reading Hendrik whilst still in Melbourne and it kept me fully occupied for my day of travel. Hendrik Groen is in fact 83 ¼ at the start of his diary, January 1 2013. 

Another year, and I still don't like old people. Their Zimmer-frame shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and biscuits, their bellyaching.
Me? I am eighty-three years old. 

Hendrik has been living in his North Amsterdam nursing home long enough to be aware of the occasions that mark the passage of time. 

The last Saturday of the month: bingo night. Geriatric gambling addicts competing for a box of cherry-liqueur chocolates. 
 Hendrik and his friends embark on a series of new adventures, the close band of friends set up an "anarchic" Old-But-Not-Dead-Club which stirs things up in the "House of the Setting Sun".
You have to keep both body and mind active, especially the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls functions such as planning, initiative and flexibility. Well, we may presume that the management of this place doesn't care much about the prefrontal cortex. Neither money nor trouble is spared to keep the oldies docile, passive and lethargic, camouflaged by bingo, billiards and 'Feel Good Fitness'.
He has quite a bit of wisdom to pass on to us. 

When you're young, you can't wait to grow up. As an adult, until the age of sixty, you want above all to stay young. But when you're as old as the hills, you've got nothing left to strive for. That is the essence of the emptiness of life in here. There are no more goals. No exams to pass, no career ladders to climb, no grandchildren to raise. We are too old, even, to babysit the grandchildren. 

I loved the way that Hendrik wove actual events from 2013 into the story, it worked really well. 2013 was quite a big year too it seems. Pope Francis was elected in March and the Dutch Queen Beatrix abdicated in April, handing over power to her son. There were a number of notable deaths including Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. Anouk represented Holland at Eurovision in Malmö in May. And I was in Amsterdam in June! I remember that 33 degree day quite well as I climbed the second highest church tower in Europe that day (barefoot as it turned out). 

Hendrik is mildly obsessed with bitterballen as a snack whilst drinking. Actually there's a lot more drinking going on with Hendrik and his friends than might be expected of gentle nursing home folk, and much of the humour arises from it.

My Bitterballen experience whilst drinking
 Amsterdam 2013

Translator Hester Velmans did an extraordinary job as The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen reads as if Hendrik was a native English speaker.

See John Boyne's review at The Irish Times. 

From the start Hendrik's voice was not what I imagined of an octogenarian, and indeed it may not be as Hendrik Groen is a pseudonym and the hunt is on for the true identity of the author. I don't really mind who wrote it, it was fun. And good news - The second book is on the way! John Boyne isn't sure that the formula will stretch to a second book, but I'm more than willing to give it a go. 


Brona said...

You've sold me! We have an ARC of this at work...looks like my next book is sorted :-)

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

A great cover. Glad the insides were as good as the outsides.