Thursday 17 January 2019

Injecting a dash of colour into the winter of our lives

Fiction: On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, Hendrik Groen, Michael Joseph, hardback, 427 pages, €14.99

Authentic: Hendrik Groen was came to prominence in a column on a Dutch website
Authentic: Hendrik Groen was came to prominence in a column on a Dutch website
On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen by Hendrik Groen

Hilary A White

The fictional Hendrik Groen returns with more moments of beauty and laughter from the residents of a nursing home attempting a series of last hurrahs.

When 15,000 of this country's pensioners took to the streets to protest cuts in the 2008 Budget, the sheer scale of the demonstration forced many to sit up and consider the senior citizens of our society. The message was that while they may lack corporeal stability and haste, they more than make up for it in grit and gumption, especially when their rights are infringed. What's more, they have time on their hands to wage warfare if you wrong them.

This notion of pushing back against the world, and possibly being doomed to fail therein, seems to permeate every sigh, shrug and chirp of this second fictional diary by "Hendrik Groen". Resistance emerges as a default setting as we walk deeper into the winter of our lives, even if it is mostly internalised.

We don't know who Groen really is but Dutch media has speculated extensively on the subject. The only people privy to the author's true identity are his publishers in the Netherlands. They must surely be a very happy bunch following the blow-up success of Groen's first outing, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old (2014).

That stemmed from a column on the literary website Torpedo Magazine that distilled vintage ease with tiring wisdom as the world inside a Dutch nursing home, as well as one far beyond, was remarked on. It was gently piercing, with a seam of humour running through the tough and sticky realities of waiting out one's final days in institutional care.

As we can all appreciate, the opinions of our older relatives can often seem out of step with pervading contemporary narratives. Groen makes his diary entries over the calendar year of 2015 and all the real events we witnessed that year - from plane crashes to faltering economies to ISIS atrocities - filter down into the conversations of the 85-year-old and his Old-But-Not-Dead Club.

Some, like the horrid old troll Bakker, are unable to witness the overwhelming refugee crisis with anything approaching humanity. Others show a charming, almost blissful lack of awareness of things that don't ultimately make a great deal of difference to their day-to-day.

More pressing for them are the multitude of things inside the nursing home that our anonymous writer mines nuggets of situational comedy gold out of. Groen observes the indolence of neglectful children and the temptation to make last-minute changes to wills. There are matters for the harrumphing Residents' Committee to attend and games of mental chess to conduct with dastardly nursing-home director, Mrs Stelwagen, who may or may not be hiding intentions to demolish the home. The dynamics between Groen and the other residents themselves - buddies, bullies and flirts - at times resembles a school corridor traversed via mobility scooter.

If you're worried, however, that On the Bright Side wishes to make a cartoon of what is a profound stage of life, don't be. The voice here looks for the silliness in seniority up to a point and doesn't shy away from the physical and mental degradations and breakdowns that age inevitably incurs - bone breakages, bowel malfunctions, memory loss, the lot. These have the habit of dropping right in the middle of plans and missions to live with something approaching autonomy and fulfilment, and pull Groen and his cohorts back down to earth with a hard and often mortifying thud.

After all, there really is only one show in town for Groen and his concerns for fast-ailing best friend Evert - impending death.

"Of course anyone who is over 80 could kick the bucket at any time, but there's a big difference between the chance of dying and the certainty of dying," he ponders at one point.

"A chance isn't something to worry much about, but certain death is impossible to ignore."

It piques the Old-But-Not-Dead Club's outings and excursions with a hint of urgency, as if these are the very last of the last hurrahs. The desire to be in control of his destiny bubbles up in Groen as he can finally no longer ignore the pamphlet he received from the Euthanasia Society.

"It isn't easy to be actively engaged in your own death, leaving as little as possible to chance. An uneasy and complicated pill to swallow, and I don't feel like writing about it right now," he gloomily says in one March extract.

This authentic ring to Groen's tone is what keeps everything motoring ahead in a book that can often feel like an episodic and slightly throwaway meander that has been deconstructed into bite-size journal entries.

What you suspect to be the truth of the matter, however, is that Groen's year is merely rolling along as life must inevitably do in such institutions, desperation circling over that need to resist and moments of beauty and laughter being clung to when possible.

Does it make the thought of greying expiration any easier to digest? Not really. Will you give a copy to your granny? Unlikely. Does it humanise the demographic a little more by colouring in the important and overlooked corners? Luminously so.

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