Dutch writer Merieke Lucas Rijneveld grew up in a Reformed farming family and their brother died when the author was three years old. They continue to juggle a writing practice with working on a dairy farm and adopted the name Lucas, alongside Marieke, to represent their identity as non-binary, stating in a February 2020 interview “When you’re a young girl you can be boyish. I didn’t experience it as a problem until secondary school, when on my first day two girls came up and asked, ‘Well, what are you?’ After that I knew if I acted more girly, I wouldn’t get bullied.” (Dazed)
Romanian writer Max Blecher contracted tuberculosis of the spine aged nineteen and died at the age of twenty-eight. As the introduction to his ‘Adventures in Immediate Irreality’ (translated by Michael Henry Heim) states, “Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence.” As Herta Müller points out in an essay included in the New Directions publication of his book, “an impressive book that no one read when it first came out in Romania in 1936 or later when it was reissued in 1970…and when the first German edition appeared… no one read that either…”
Merieke Lucas Rijneveld’s novel, ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ (translated by Michele Hutchison), was a huge success upon release in the original Dutch and after a bidding war for the translation into English Faber released their first Dutch novel since 2001, and five months later the prestigious Booker International Prize was won. Merieke Lucas Rijneveld having a lot more success than Max Blecher.
Reading both Merieke Lucas Rijneveld and Max Blecher back to back I was struck by several similarities, primarily in dealing with death, grief and trauma.
‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is written through the eyes and thoughts of Jas, whose elder brother, Matthies, goes skating one day, falls through the ice and dies. Through a childhood lens we are immersed in the shattering of the family unit, where grief is not mentioned, where the work on the farm continues, where hugs disappear, and where Jas becomes increasingly insular retreating further and further inside her coat.
Mum doesn’t touch me once while portioning out the omelette, not even by accident. I take a step back and then another. Sadness ends up in your spine. Mum’s back is getting more and more bent. This time there are two plates missing, once for Mum and one for Matthies. She has stopped eating with us, even though she keeps up appearances by making herself a sandwich, and she still sits at the head of the table opposite Dad, watching us with the eyes of Argus, bringing our forks to our mouths. For a moment I picture a dead baby and the Big Bad Wolf Granny used to tell us about when we stayed at her house and she tucked us in beneath an itchy horse blanket. One day they cut open the Big Bad Wolf’s belly to rescue the seven goats and put stones in instead and sewed his belly up again. They must have put a stone back in my Mum’s belly, I realize, which is why she’s so hard and cold sometimes.
It is not only Matthies’ death that permeates the novel, the arrival of foot-and-mouth disease sees the animals, who receive more attention that the remaining children, all have to be destroyed;
‘The first cow is going down now,’ Mum says. She’s standing next to the cowshed door with a thermos flask in each and – one of them has got TEA written on it is waterproof marker, the other COFFEE. As though she can keep her balance this way/ A packet of pink-glazed cakes in clamped under her arm. Her voice sounds hoarse. I follow her into the cowshed, and tat that very moment the first cows fall down dead on the gratings, and their unwieldly bodies are pulled along the ground by their back legs to the grab loader, which picks them up like cuddly toys at the fair and drops them into the truck. Two bovines stand under the rotating cattle brush chewing idly, their noses covered in thick scabs. They stare feverishly at their fellows whose legs are giving way, or who are slipping and smacking down onto the floor blocks in the stalls. Some of the calves are still alive as they go into the carcass-disposal truck, others get a stud shot into their foreheads with a bolt stunner. The moaning and the sound of banging against the side of the truck causes small cracks under my skin, and my body begins to feel feverish. It’s no longer enough to pull my collar up to my nose and chew on my coat cords. Even Maxima, Jewel and Blaze are killed without remorse. They collapse and are gone, folded up like empty milk cartons and thrown in the container.
This matter-of-fact childlike innocent voice mixed with the horror of the everyday, the brutal reality blended with childhood metaphors (“pulled along the ground by their back legs to the grab loader, which picks them up like cuddly toys at the fair”) continues throughout the novel. Sexual experimentation, masturbation, exploring other’s bodies are suddenly interrupted with stories of the ageing of eels or chickens that will explode due to too large eggs. These are not extraordinary events, they take place in the every day and have similar weighting in Jas’ mind as stripped pyjamas, mating toads, her pet rabbit.
Through these descriptions of the minutiae, the periphery, the insular world becomes more focused and the reader is drawn into the sense of loss, the struggles in dealing with a traumatic event when there is nobody to help you through, a place where prayers to God seems to have more weight than discussing a taboo subject.
Max Blecher’s book, instead of using a child internal monolgue, reflects back to memories of childhood and how these events shaped him, it is a questioning by the author as to what made him, what experiences created who he is today, even though that all seems too unreal, it is an irreality.
Staring at a fixed point on the wall, I occasionally have the feeling I no longer know who or where I am. At such times, I experience the loss of my identity from a distance: I feel for a moment that I have become a complete stranger, this abstract personage and my real self vying for authenticity with equal strength.
In the following moment my identity returns. It is like a stereoscopic slide in which the two images, separated by mistake, suddenly give the illusion of three dimensionality once the projectionist brings them back together. My room seems fresher than ever. It reverts to its former consistency, its objects finding their proper places, as when a crushed lump of earth in a glass of water settles in layers of various well-defined and parti-colored elements. The elements of the room take back their own contours and the colors of the old memory I have of them.
There are similar experiences with death:
One day I attended the funeral of the child of one of the itinerant photographers. The door of the booth was ajar to reveal an open coffin resting on two chairs before the cloth backdrop. The backdrop showed a magnificent park with an Italian-style terrace and marble columns. In this dreamlike setting the tiny corpse, dressed in Sunday suit with sliver-threaded button holes, hands folded over chest, seemed submerged in ineffable bliss. The child’s parents and assorted women surrounded the coffin weeping disconsolately, which the circus band, lent free of charge by the ringmaster, played the serendade from “intermezzo,” the saddest piece in its repertory. During moments such as these – in the intimacy of the profound peace, in the infinite silence of the plane trees – the corpse was doubtless happy and serene. Before long, however, it was snatched from the solemnity in which it lay and loaded onto a cart to be taken to the cemetery and the cold, wet grave that was its destiny. Thereafter the park was all desolation and void.
As well as sexual awakenings, infatuations with older women, and the descriptions of the minutiae associated with a prior traumatic event:
I can picture myself as a small child wearing a nightshirt that comes down to my heels. I am weeping desperately, sitting on a doorstep that leads into a sun-drenched courtyard with an open gate and an empty square beyond, a hot, sad noon-day square with dogs sleeping on their stomachs and men stretched out in the shade of their vegetable stalls. The air is rife with the stench of rotten produce, and large purple flies are buzzing loudly in my vicinity, alighting on my hands to sip the tears that have fallen there, then circling frenetically in the dense, scorching light of the courtyard. I stand and urinate in the dust. I watch the earth avidly drink up the liquid. It leaves a dark spot, like the shadow of a non-existent object. I wipe my face with the nightshirt and lick the tears from the corner of my lips, savoring their salty flavor. I resume my seat on the threshold, feeling very unhappy. I have been spanked.
Two novels of introspection, loneliness in dealing with grief or impending death, two books where the first-person narrator explores the natural world around them and two wonderful examples of the quality literature in translation that is available. Both highly recommended reads.
‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Merieke Lucas Rijneveld (translated by Michele Hutchison) was published by Faber & Faber earlier this year and ‘Adventures in Immediate Irreality’ by Max Blecher (translated by Michael Henry Heim) was published by New Directions in 2015. Both titles are personal copies.