Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years OldThe Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Loneliness is often more difficult to endure when one has company."
(Own translation from the Polish translation of the Dutch original.)

This is the most optimistic book I have read in a very long time. It shows that life can be beautiful and worthwhile even at the age of eighty-four, despite urinary incontinence, troubles with maintaining balance when walking, and memory lapses. All the debilitating and embarrassing limitations notwithstanding the author, about 18 years older than I am, is still in great shape intellectually, which gives me hope that maybe it is not yet time to prepare for that most special one-way trip of my life.

The Dutch title - I have read the book in Polish translation and as far as I know the book has not yet appeared in English - is Pogingen iets van het leven te maken ("Attempts to make something of life", Google translation), with the clarifying subtitle "A secret diary of 83-and-a-quarter-year-old Hendrik Groen." And indeed it is a regular diary which covers the entire year 2013 spent by the author in a nursing home for the old people in Amsterdam Noord. We meet Mr. Groen's co-residents, the nursing home staff and administration and we learn about the daily routine of the elderly, about their loneliness, depression, mental and physical decay, the ever-present threat of Alzheimer, and the life in the shadow of death whose touch the residents can feel every day. But we also read about hope, joy of life, and about love. Yes, love: Mr. Groen's diary is a unique, beautiful and subtle love story, even with a few wonderfully unexpected physical touches.

The diary is also an inspiring document about how people in a hopeless situation can thrive through participation in group social initiatives. Instead of just following the usual waiting-for-death routine Mr. Groen and his gang of very elderly friends take charge of their lives and organize themselves into an OYSA club ("Old Yet Still Alive"): the members develop a regime of frequent outings away from the nursing home. The club activities - such as visit to a casino, cooking lessons, golf practice, amateur painting - make the seniors' remaining years or months worth living. Obviously Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to mind: instead of a mental institution we have a nursing home, but the overall situation is precisely the same. Mrs. Stelwagen, the director, resembles Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, the sole authority on every single issue, who skillfully keeps appearances of patients/residents participating in the decision making. Mr. Evert is a senior version of Chief Bromden, and the OYSA club's outings mirror the deep sea fishing trip from One Flew.

While a wholehearted affirmation of life the book is also a passionate cry for allowing people to die with dignity at the time of their choosing. Although in the domain of social issues the Netherlands belongs to the most progressive countries in the world, for instance it is one of the only four countries that allow human euthanasia, the author describes all the painstaking hoops that a very elderly person who wants help with ending his or her life has to go through. Holland also happens to be an extremely rich country and it is even more saddening when Mr. Groen demonstrates how little money that obscenely affluent society allocates for senior care.

Hard to believe but this deep, thoughtful, inspiring and heartwarming book is also extremely funny. I have been laughing out loud every few pages and out of likely a hundred of funny passages let me quote just two: one for its hilarious absurdity:
"Mrs. Aupers has recently taken to walking backwards - she claims it reduces her need to go to the bathroom."
and the other one as an example of sharp political satire which happens to push my favorite button:
"I wonder - since the nice American children get their first weapon, my first rifle for their fifth birthday [...] - whether in the American nursing homes the geezers walk around with their loaded last rifle[s]."

While not a literary work of art Pogingen is a true delight to read and a rich source of joy of life, whatever the circumstances. Despite all the New Year's 2017 Doom and Gloom, this is a book that will make people happier. I hope it will be translated into English really soon.

Four and a half stars.

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