The mystery over who “Hendrik Groen” is, continues. Groen is the pseudonym of a Dutch author who has produced two very popular novels about “his” life in an old age home in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Groen, meaning “green” in Dutch, is mentally and physically a sprightly green tree in the aged forest of inhabitants of the old age home. Along with his band of similarly youthful-spirited friends who make up the “Old-But-Not-Dead Club”, they live a life of moderate eventfulness and plentiful very dry humour.
Groen’s view of the end of life is humorous but also desperately sad and unnerving. He describes it with an auger-like focus that reveals every last intimate, horrible, heart-wrenching detail. You might not want to read about this – who would? But you should.
A hit, a very palpable hit
Groen’s first novel, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83¼ Years Old, by Anonymous (or Hendrik Groen) came out in 2014, and has now been filmed as a TV series for Dutch station NPO which started broadcasting it in Oct. 2017. The book, about a not very exciting subject, was a great success, translated into English almost immediately, sold in 21 countries, and stayed for more than 30 weeks on Dutch bestsellers lists. So no doubt it was successful, not least because the number of over-65s in the Dutch population is growing steadily.
On 1 January 2017, the population aged 65 and over stood at 3.2 million, a slow but notable increase of over 1 million over two decades, out of a total population of about 17 million (about 18.7%). So there are many readers (and their children) with whom this will resonate. In 2018, the number is still about 3.2 million.
So he has readers in the same boat – so what?
What does this mean? Groen, or whoever he is, hit the nail on the head with this subject. Everyone ages, everyone is heading the way of the old age home, everyone will die. Yet, to write about this unattractive stage of life with wit, precise observation and candour is daring. Who wants to read about people wearing adult diapers and losing their physical and mental faculties one piece at a time? Apparently, a whole bunch of people all over the world.
Now for the second diary
So I got the sequel to the book called “Zolang er leven is” (meaning “as long as there is life”), with reference to a poem that “Hendrik Groen’s” best friend, “Evert”, writes for him, and read it in Dutch. The book has since been translated as On the Bright Side, and it came out in January 2018.
I was interested to see how the life of the now 85-year-old “Hendrik” (a.k.a. “Henkie”) changes in the new diary. For one, in both the Dutch and English editions Hendrik has lost his anonymity as author. Second, the Dutch version is an exact chronological diary of one year – from 31 December to 31 December, which is why it is 375 pages long (roughly 1 page per day, including the ten extra days where he lost track of time and when his best friend died.) I do not know how publisher Michael Joseph got it to 416 pages. The diary format is definitely still there – and when Hendrik relates that he had a bit of a moment when he was out of it and did not write in his diary, you can page back to see where he skipped a few days.
Whoever the author is, this man has been there, done that. This is not imagined, it has the stamp of authority and personal experience all over it – in other words, a very high degree of authorial presence, whether it is an actual diary or not.
Does it matter whether the author is in an old age home?
This is important, because it is a kind of handbook on what happens when you hit eighty. Seventy is seen as positively sprightly by the 80-plussers, called “oudjes” (“oldies”) by Hendrik. He goes again into the gruesome details of what exactly happens when the body stops functioning – the pills, surgeries, nappies, zimmer frames, shakes and chills, neuroses and phobias and depression. He writes in a tenderly tolerant manner about oldies leaving food trails after them as they go, crashing their walking frames and mobility scooters, and generally acting like idiots, with their mental acuity lost. He often finds similarities between children and old people.
To death and not beyond
This is more of what he wrote about in the previous book. But this time, he takes it through to the moment of death (not his, his friend’s). In the previous book, the woman he was in love with, “Eefje”, dies. In this one, his irascible, rude and likeable best friend, “Evert”, dies from cancer. Two important ideas are raised in the novel – how to die the way you want to and when you want to, and the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease. For Hendrik, Alzheimer’s is way worse than death by cancer, which Evert makes bearable by getting all sorts of powerful drugs from his doctor. Hendrik’s friend, “Grietje”, is in the locked “crazy” ward and smiles benignly at him when she sees him. She has no idea who he is and builds the same 16-piece puzzle over and over.
Hendrik, Evert and the other fighters in the “Omanido” club (Oud Maar Niet Dood – Old But Not Dead) resist both the giving up of the quality of life, and everyone who tries to treat them like children or victims, such as the government bureaucracy, the authorities in the home, the people who want to shut down their home, children who mistreat them, etc. The Omanido club members (only eight who will fit into a mini bus) eat out in foreign restaurants, go on interesting excursions, and keep each other from moaning and groaning. They sharpen their wits by plotting against anyone who would make their lives less pleasant. It’s an interesting depiction of how the Dutch treat their old age pensioners.
The death of Evert
Amidst all the droll humour (with lots of peeing, pooping and drooling) and laugh-out-loud snarky comments from the Omanidos about the staff and residents, there is the death of Evert. Every time it comes up in the diary the painfully realistic, humiliating details of it jolted me. Everyone tries to keep their dignity and their privacy until the last, but often they end up as nothing but pieces of meat in a ward. Evert keeps his cancer a secret from all but his doctor, Hendrik and his girl friend “Leonie” until the end.
“‘En nu wegwezen, jij.’ Hij slikte. We hebben elkaar omhelst. Voor het eerst en nu voor het laast. Twee magere oude mannetjes die op een oudemannetjesmanier van elkaar hielden.” (p. 316)
Literally translated it reads:
“‘And now, go, you.’ He swallowed. We embraced each other. For the first time and now for the last. Two skinny little old men who, in a little-old-men-way, liked each other.”
The translation of “van elkaar hielden” is literally “to have liked each other”. But in Dutch, this means to love each other. It was always odd to me, to say you like someone but mean you love them. You do not say in Dutch, I love you, or I heb je lief – you can if you want to. Usually you say: I hou van je. I like you. Indeed, they did love each other, as much as friends can, even reticent friends.
The Old-ager’s Guide to the Retirement Home Galaxy
Aside from all the in-jokes and colloquial references about Dutch politics, TV, sport, food (“tompoezen”, “hagelslag” and “Unox Smac” – go google it), and so on, this diary is about love, loneliness and death. We find out more about Hendrik’s career as the head of a primary school, the death of his daughter as a small child, and the dementia of his wife. Evert writes in a book of poetry (Anton Korteweg – Ouderen zijn het gelukkigst (Old people are the happiest), 2009) that he gives Hendrik:
“Lees, lach en heb lief.
Niet blijven hangen in gemis.
Vooruit met de geit,
Zolang het leven is.”
Translated: “Read, laugh and love./Do not get stuck in nostalgia/Get on and get the goat/So long as there is life”. Evert is always the one who takes the mickey out of everyone and gives sharp repartees to people who are mean-spirited or cruel. He says that Hendrik’s biggest personality flaw is that he is prone to sitting around and moping and moaning – therefore the parting note.
Here’s the thing with this novel – you know it has 365 entries, and someone is going to die before the last page. All the Omanido members are over 80 – they are on borrowed time. The trick, writes Hendrik, is for him to write one entry per day, to keep himself alive for another year. Whether that will work is not the issue. Writing gives him purpose and cause for reflection – and avoidance. So, in this diary he mentions that he should try writing a book instead of a diary.
Does Hendrik die?
Does Hendrik die? I’ll leave that up to you. Even if you read it in English, which can never be as whimsical and perfectly suited to the depiction of Dutch life as idiomatic Dutch is – just read it. For your own sake, your parents’ sakes, your grandparents’ sakes, and your children’s sakes. What happens is nicer to read about in the words of Groen, the author, who often has moments of amusement, happiness and contentment, than by watching or reading about other instances of Alzheimer’s and last moments. I contrasted Groen’s descriptions with the last-ever episode of Henning Mankell’s Wallander, with “Kurt Wallander” rapidly losing his mind to Alzheimer’s and, mouth gaping open in incomprehension, staring off over a dark, icy sea, with his feet (impervious to the cold) in the snow. I definitely prefer Groen’s version.
Personally, I’m wondering if a death of my choosing in The Netherlands is not a better option than a death of someone else’s choosing in Canada, where assisted suicide is legal since 2016, but very strictly legislated and contentious. All I hope is not to lose my mind before I can sort it out myself.
Music to fit the tone of the book
Now, on this somber note, I leave you with the closing theme to Mankell’s Wallander (the Yellow Bird Swedish production). It’s Quiet Night, by Anna Ternheim. The lyrics perfectly reflect the increasingly quiet, lonesome, and overwhelmingly blank end of life of the oldies in the home where Hendrik lives, and the final years of Kurt Wallander. To die, to forget, is to sleep, but it’s sleep that must be fought against:
“Quiet night, thought becomes a whisper.
Not a word you say could ever hurt me.
Screaming streets are so quiet now, they are sleeping,
just like we’re about to.
You say it’s worth it all, the troubles and the worries.
just knowing I’ll wake up with you again tomorrow.
And I say it’s worth it too – the madness,
the bad dreams all go away with you.
And outside the life goes on.”