At a time when being stuck indoors, unable to go out, has become the new norm and the spectre of illness (and indeed death) hangs over us constantly, it seems fitting to review a book told from the perspective of one of our most vulnerable sectors of society, the elderly.
On the Bright Side is the story of a resident of a care home for the elderly in Amsterdam. His year-long diary is about his life, ailments and emotions, as well as the anarchical antics of the Old-But-Not-Dead Club, an eight-strong group of ‘inmates’ who organise excursions and day trips to escape the banality of life inside the care home. Whether sampling Ethiopian cuisine for the first time, going to a jazz club in the centre of Amsterdam, or simply enjoying a night of cards and brandy, the club’s roster of events and outings contrasts with the limitations of care-home life and old age. There’s a lot of fun, anarchy and hilarity. The care home itself also provides plenty of action, however, with discussions of food, love, sex, politics, current affairs and multiculturalism, as well as the ‘inmates’’ criticism of how the home is run. The life of the elderly residents is revealed to be a microcosm of the outside world – a life filled with its own trials and tribulations but one that is more similar to younger people’s lives than we might like to think.
Despite its generally light-hearted insights into the life of pensioners, the book does not shy away from difficult topics; dementia, physical decay and death (and its aftermath) are dealt with throughout. While these subjects are the bases for the most poignant moments in the book, particularly for the protagonist Hendrik Groen himself, they are discussed rather casually, and even humorously. They are also the very reasons why Groen decides to take life by the horns at the age of eighty-five, and it is this contrast that gives his story its unique perspective.
As a translator from Dutch myself, I paid special attention to Hester Velmans’ translation: it is good and firmly places the book in the Netherlands. However, one small point: while the use of descriptive translations for Dutch concepts (especially foodstuffs) is useful for the reader, it is inconsistent in places and at times feels a little out of place, given that the novel takes the form of a personal diary.
Hendrik Groen’s diary gives us a charming, emotional and funny insight into an often-forgotten part of society, and shows young people like me that the elderly, in spite of their physical limitations, can still have agency, interests, and above all humour. Although conceived as a sequel to his very successful debut, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼, Years Old this follow-up can be read as a standalone text, and it is easy to see why it has gained international appeal, despite its Dutch setting. Hendrik Groen (the pseudonym and adopted persona of author Peter de Smet) demonstrates that you can still value life and living even when you’re older and even when you’re in a care home. You can still live with gusto, laughter and your eyes fixed on the bright side, even when your circumstances may be less than ideal.
Reviewed by Scott Emblen-Jarrett
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: THE NEW SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN, 85 YEARS OLD
Written by Hendrik Groen
Translated by Hester Velmans
Published by Penguin (2018)
Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.
Scott Emblen-Jarrett graduated from UCL in 2015 in Dutch and Spanish. He held a residency at the Translators House in Amsterdam, translating the work of Radna Fabias. His first full-length translation work, Jules Deelder’s poetry collection Transeuropa, was published in 2019.
Read Scott Emblen-Jarrett’s #RivetingReview of ROXY by Esther Gerritsen