The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst
Dimitri Verhulst is Belgian and writes in Dutch. Some years ago, I read the first of his short novels to be translated by David Colmer, Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill, and I loved it (reviewed here). It had a perfect mixture of wit and pathos, and I’ve been meaning to read his other novels ever since.
The Latecomer, his fourth novel available in English, is again translated by David Colmer.
It concerns the elephant in the room that is Alzheimers, but looks at the disease from a different direction to the one we’re used to, and it begins thus:
Although it’s completely deliberate, night after night, I loathe shitting in bed. Debasing myself like this is the most difficult consequence of the somewhat insane path I’ve taken late in life. But holding back in my sleep could only arouse the suspicions of my carers. If I want to continue to play the role of a senile old man, I have no choice but to regularly soil my nappies. Because that’s what this is: a role. I am nowhere near as demented as those around me believe!
Désiré Cordier is seventy four. A retired librarian, father of two and hen-pecked husband, he is now a resident at the Winterlight Home for the Elderly. More than anything else in retirement, Désiré has wanted to get away from his wife. His grown-up children no longer need him and he wants an easy life, so he comes up with a plan. He will fake dementia and force his family to put him in a home. As the novel progresses, he tells us how he did this, alongside details of his new life at Winterlight. One thing he needs to do once there is to discourage his wife from visiting. When she arrives one time he is drinking wine, something she always thought he did too much of:
Which inspired me to declare, ‘Sit down next to me, Camilla, and have one yourself. It’s on me. I’ve got a tab here!’
Needless to say, this reunion and my remark insulted her deeply, not least because my wife isn’t called Camilla, but Moniek. […] Moniek De Petter. A beautiful name… to see on a headstone.
(Incidentally, according to her passport she’s not Moniek, but Monique. She thought spelling it like that was way too stuffy and didn’t suit her at all. People who consider it necessary to change their name… Need I say more?) (p16)
Back before going into the home, Désiré recounts some of the exploits he had to do to get Moniek to take his feigned condition seriously. Going to the bookseller and buying a whole pile of ‘cack-handed publications’ and the bookseller taking advantage and overcharging him is one – nasty! Eventually they take him to the doctors and he fakes his way through the tests to get a diagnosis.
Meanwhile, back at Winterlight, he has to join in some of the group activities, when he’d rather be alone, but at least this gets him closer to one of the other residents. Rosa Rozendaal was the one that got away in his youth, but of course, she’s a shadow of her former self. Still, he dreams. Then there is the German, Walter. Désiré is convinced he was a Camp Commandant, and baits him incessantly. Every now and then, one of the residents will try to escape:
The dotard’s primary occupation is flight: an urgent, desperate need to escape. With that in mind there is a bus stop in the middle of Winterlight Geriatric’s garden. Completely fake, of course. I mean, no bus will ever stop in that garden or leave from it. But it’s still a perfect reproduction, complete with bench and shelter, a neatly posted timetable and various notices that make the whole particularly convincing, even if none of the prospective passengers ever show any interest in them: … There is even a short stretch of road, about seven metres in total,… and a sign to a town that doesn’t exist, which is also the bus’s destination. The number 77. Since the establishment of this ghost connection to elsewhere, Winterlight’s care worked have had to spend much less time tracking down residents who have gone missing. (p59)
The thought that runs through this novel is does pretending to be mad make you mad? Will Désiré ever go to the bus stop?
We remember Corporal Klinger (left) from M*A*S*H who eventually gives up trying, for as he says in a letter to his uncle, “It’s no wonder I never got a Section Eight– there’s nothing special about me; everybody here is crazy!”
Then, there is poor Wing Commander Marsh in Colditz who went mad pretending to be mad to get repatriated. (See the episode Tweedledum from the 1970s TV series here, with an amazing performance by Michael Bryant as Marsh.)
Back to Verhulst’s novel – well, via Jo Brand. In her latest sitcom, a three episode sequel to Getting On which was set in a geriatric hospital ward. In Going Forward, her character, Kim Wilde, now works in a care home. I couldn’t help but think of Kim whenever one of the care assistants or nurses appeared in The Latecomer. Verhulst acknowledges via Désiré what a thankless and low-paid job it is and Curvy Cora, as Désiré calls his main carer, has to put up with an awful lot – yet she’s always smiling.
The author captures all the indignities of growing old and infirm in this novella with a mixture of sensitivity and out and out comedy, but with an increasing amount of pathos. You can’t help but feel for Désiré, although the progression of his condition does make you question his wisdom. The scene where his daughter comes to visit was touching in particular and brings home how awful it is for the families.
I now need to read the middle two of Verhulst’s four translated novels, for I enjoyed The Latecomer very much indeed. Highly Recommended. (9/10)
P.S. This novel fills in the first square of my Book Bingo card – it could go in several positions, but I’ve put it under ‘With an animal on the cover or in the title’.
P.P.S. The quote in the title of this blog post is taken from The Great Pretender, as originally sung by The Platters, and latterly Freddie Mercury.
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Source: Publisher – thank you!
Dimitri Verhulst, The Latecomer, trans David Colmer (Portobello, 2016) paperback original, 144 pages.