There is a current trend for novels with long titles about eccentric old people: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules: A Novel by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney, Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman, etc. These were all moderately amusing and entertaining, with the old people being unnaturally sharp, physically active, brave and rebellious for their ages, and embarking on ill-advised adventures. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83¼ Years Old, by Anonymous (or Hendrik Groen) has a title and cover design in the same style but is NOTHING like those other books.
This novel should be required reading for everyone who has parents or dependents who are past retirement age, since everything in it is witty, evocative, and mildly disparaging towards old people, but also fiendishly, precisely, and acutely observant of the lives and thoughts of what we refer to as “the aged”. I have an 83-year-old mother, and every word rang true: the walkers, rollators, the hip replacements, knee replacements, dietary restrictions, dementia, diseases and ailments, loneliness, grumpiness, moaning and bitching and the general awfulness of getting old and facing death.
Ha! Well, there you go. Life in an old age home depicted in the diary entries of one year. You want to know what awaits most of us? Read this. Really, it’s not depressing, or morbid. There’s lots of black humour about bodily functions, or malfunctions, and death. It’s rather cheering that “Hendrik Groen”, whose diary this purports to be, is wicked and funny and that he and the fellow members of the “Old-But-Not-Dead Club” have fun and take the mickey out of their fellow “inmates” (as he calls them) and the authorities.
There is pathos, delicately presented, in the growing dementia of his friend, ”Grietje”, and the woman of whom he grows fond, “Eefje” who has a bad stroke, and his alcoholic but wickedly rebellious best friend, “Evert” who loses body parts to diabetes. Hendrik himself makes discreet enquiries into euthanasia, which can be arranged in The Netherlands, where this novel is set. He feels that choosing the time and method of your death is the last dignity you have left in old age. The letter from Eefje stating her wish for euthanasia is lost, and she suffers tremendous pain as she slowly dies.
“Sunday, 29 December
Eefje is dead. At 11 o’clock last night I kissed her on her wrinkled forehead and whispered ‘See you in the morning.’ She drifted off peacefully an hour later. I just went to look at her. She still looked so beautiful. I wish I could be happy for her, but I am too sad for that right now. We are starting 2014 with a funeral. Unhappy new year.”(p.359)
This may actually have been a diary. There is very little “novelization”. Plot? Hardly any. Just the machinations of the inmates who try to defend their rights in a system rigged against them. Characters? Many, but I felt like I had met at least half of them, they are so normal. Setting? Nothing exotic, just a Dutch old age home in North Amsterdam. The days are documented by Groen; people move in, and out, and die, and politics happen. Small triumphs are highlights, like Hendrik getting a mobility scooter, jazzing it up, and driving wherever he wants to.
“It was lunchtime. A nurse was feeding a short woman with a bib around her neck. ‘Toot, toot, here comes the train…and…in we go!’ They call it senility or dementia nowadays, but they used to say you were in your second childhood.” (p.324)
Why then does it work? Probably because it is direct, simple and honest. Life does not get more dramatic than when it is about to end. This novel has a lot of expectation of death in it, or as that moment is also known, the “existential slap”.
In an excellent analysis in The Atlantic, “…Nessa Coyle calls it “the existential slap”—that moment when a dying person first comprehends, on a gut level, that death is close. For many, the realization comes suddenly: “The usual habit of allowing thoughts of death to remain in the background is now impossible,” Coyle, a nurse and palliative-care pioneer, has written. “Death can no longer be denied.”
All the characters in this novel, or in this man’s diary, have felt that existential slap, and have to find ways to live with it.
Who is Hendrik Groen? How successful has it been?
According to Publishers Weekly, “Hendrik Groen is an alias, and [publisher] Meulenhoff released the book as fiction. As “Hendrik” cryptically explained: “Nothing is a lie, but not everything is true.” In the media there has been a lot of speculation about who Hendrik Groen could be. Is he an actual octogenarian? Is he a famous Dutch writer? A well-known Dutch stand-up comedian?”
It has been revealed that Hendrik Groen is the pseudonym of Dutch author Peter de Smet, who is apparently not interested in celebrity. De Smet is in his early sixties. Well, it is likely, as respectable Dutch newspapers have reported, but who knows…
Hendrik Groen started his diary on the literary website of Torpedo Magazine. The original Dutch title is “Pogingen iets van het leven te make – Het Geheime Dagboek van Hendrik Groen 83 1/4 Jaar” and it has already been filmed as a TV series for Dutch station NPO, and broadcasting started in Oct. 2017. (Trailer, in Dutch, below.) Rights have sold in 21 countries, and the book had been on the Dutch bestseller list for 30 weeks by Aug. 25, 2015, with 40,000 copies sold in The Netherlands. By now it is more than 60,000. It has been translated into more than twenty languages.
Another diary in the works…
On August 10, 2016, publisher Michael Joseph announced that they had acquired a second “secret diary” from Hendrik Groen, called As Long as there is Life (in Dutch; Zolang er leven is) which continues the story of protagonist Hendrik – now aged 85 years old – and the activities of the “Old-But-Not-Dead Club”. The current novel, originally titled “Attempts to Make Something of Life”, contains a few pages from the forthcoming novel, due out January 2018. It looks like more of the same, with Hendrik Groen staying true to form. And not dead yet.