Wednesday 22 November 2017

Hendrik shuffles into Adrian Mole's shoes

Fiction: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, Hendrik Groen, Michael Joseph, pbk, 368 pages, €15.49

The real identity of the writer of the Hendrik Groen diary is unknown
The real identity of the writer of the Hendrik Groen diary is unknown
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The fictional diary has a fine old lineage in literature: everything from Bridget Jones to Diary of a Wimpy Kid to (for the most part) Dracula.

Probably the most notorious is The Hitler Diaries, initially thought to be authentic and then revealed as fictional. And probably the most famous one of recent times - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¬ - pretty much shares a title with this Dutch novel.

Hendrik Groen is a pseudonym (the real identity of the writer is unknown), and this book, which began life as a magazine column, has been a publishing sensation in the Netherlands since its first release in 2014. Tens of thousands of copies sold, month after month on the Dutch bestseller lists, foreign rights sold to over 20 countries; there's even a TV adaptation in the works.

The story is fairly straightforward. Our octogenarian hero is living in a retirement home. He's not hugely unhappy, but he's vaguely dissatisfied all the same.

Life, he's realising more and more every day, is tough when you're old. Tired all the time. Repetitive, listless days. Aches and pains in places where you never knew you had places before. Cold. Have to pee more often.

You can't stay awake during the day and can't sleep at night. You're surrounded by other old people; the only bit of fire and energy Hendrik ever encounters is when fellow residents have family visit, and these visits are invariably short, the visitors surly and begrudging. (He has none; his daughter died, aged four, a lifetime ago.)

The care home food is only mediocre (and all the bloody tea and biscuits). There are too many rules. The director, Mrs Stelwagen, rules with, if not quite an iron fist, at least a firm grip.

And of course, mortality is constantly looming, around the corner. Hendrik works out at one stage how many funerals he's obliged to attend per year; the total number is as depressing as the winter weather.

But he's a cussed old devil, and not quite ready to shuffle off the stage just yet. So, Hendrik decides to start writing a diary, beginning on New Year's Day.

The declared reason is to keep a record of all the things wrong with the nursing-home, but really, it's more than that. A journal will give shape to Hendrik's life, help him remember things and mark them, and basically act as an aid or spur to enjoying the remainder of his life, as much as he can.

Along with his best friend, the irascible Evert, new resident Eefje who he quickly falls for (though he mightn't admit it), and a few others, Hendrik founds the Old-But-Not-Dead Club. They arrange an outing once a week, be that to a gallery or a garden or a casino. Mrs Stelwagen is unimpressed - but Hendrik and his friends feel like they're living again.

Author John Boyne (of Boy in Stripy Pyjamas fame) is quoted on the back cover, but don't let that put you off. This is a sweet, undemanding read, whimsical, gently funny, thought-provoking at times. Not entirely my cup of tea, but I can understand why it's found such an audience in its homeland, much of that through good word-of-mouth.

Now, I'd probably be lying if I said I loved it. The pace is so slow, the humour so mild and the incidents (necessarily and mostly) so trivial that, at times, the novel only barely manages to stay the right side of boring.

But it's a nice book. Is that a compliment or an insult? The former, I think.

Funnily enough, for me this would work better as a TV series: three or four parts, airing on BBC, starring someone like Bill Nighy and a raft of other classy, RADA-schooled veterans - perfect, undemanding fare for a winter Sunday night. I could imagine Hendrik quite enjoying that, actually.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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