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The Discomfort of Evening: An anatomy of loss

Rihan Najib | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 04, 2020

Red comfort: Jas — the name of the protagonist — means ‘coat’ in Dutch, which adds another layer of import to the red coat she never takes off   -  Getty Images

The winner of this year’s International Booker, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel is a visceral examination of childhood trauma

* Written in Dutch by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated into English by Michele Hutchison, the novel was last week awarded the International Booker Prize 2020

* At 29, Rijneveld — who was raised in a religious farming community in the Netherlands and continues to work in a dairy — is the youngest author to win the International Booker Prize

A 12-year-old girl peers into a coffin where her dead brother’s face is visible through a glass viewing-pane. She muses: “The nurses had stuck tissue paper under his eyelids to keep them shut, while I’d have preferred them to be open so that we could look at each other one more time, so that I could be sure I didn’t forget the colour of his eyes, so that he wouldn’t forget me.” The scene forms one of the pivotal moments in The Discomfort of Evening, a haunting, viscerally gripping novel about the permanence of childhood trauma. Written in Dutch by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and translated into English by Michele Hutchison, the novel was last week awarded the International Booker Prize 2020.

The Booker Prize, in recent times, has been plagued by controversies — ranging from a long-standing lack of diversity in the race and gender of the authors selected for the coveted award to a bias towards books from bigger publishers. By contrast, the International Booker Prize has had a relatively better run, considerably expanding the literary landscape to include translated works from across the world. Instated in 2005, the prize is awarded annually to a book in translation, splitting the £50,000 prize equally between the writer and translator. Last year, the prize was won by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth for the book Celestial Bodies. This year, Indian poet and musician Jeet Thayil was among the five judges who chose Rijneveld’s novel from a shortlist that included Persian, Spanish, German and Japanese works in translation.

The Discomfort of Evening / Marieke Lucas Rijneveld / (Tr) Michele Hutchison / Faber & Faber / Fiction / ₹ 899

 

At 29, Rijneveld — who was raised in a religious farming community in the Netherlands and continues to work in a dairy — is the youngest author to win the International Booker Prize. Inspired by events from the author’s life, The Discomfort of Evening was a bestseller in the Netherlands when it was published in Dutch in 2018 as De avond is ongemak and was awarded the ANV Debutantenprijs, a Dutch prize for the best literary debut. Rijneveld, who identifies as both male and female, and chooses to be addressed by the pronouns they/them, worked on the novel for six years, and also published two collections of poetry, in 2015 and 2019. In an interview, they said, “When I started writing stories, they all came back to the loss of my brother. I had to tell this story before I could tell any other.”

The Discomfort of Evening opens with the young protagonist Jas trying to come to terms with the death of her older brother Matthies. Preoccupied with the worry that her father, an unsentimental farmer, was about to slaughter her pet rabbit for the day’s dinner, and angry for not being able to go ice-skating with her brother, she asks god to take Matthies instead of her rabbit. Shortly thereafter, she is informed that her brother had fallen through the ice while skating and drowned. Consumed by guilt and anxiety, Jas retreats into an inner world that struggles to cope with the loss. Her anguish is compounded as her parents, crippled by grief, become emotionally distant and visibly depressed, often teetering on the verge of separating from each other. Rijneveld’s treatment of familial pain as observed by a 12-year-old is simultaneously gentle and hard-hitting with sentences such as: “No one in the village liked to dwell. The crops might wither, and we only knew about the harvest that came from the land, not about the things that grew inside ourselves”.

Along with Jas, members in her family develop odd and, at times, alarming personality quirks in response to the interminably funereal atmosphere of their home. Her mother loses all appetite and refuses to eat an increasingly long list of foods. Jas suffers from severe abdominal pains and chronic constipation while refusing to ever take off her grimy red coat. Her brother Obbe grows menacingly violent towards his sisters and small animals. The passages of Jas and her siblings engaging in sexually-charged explorations of their bodies are not for the squeamish.

Despite the inexorable bleakness of the subject, Rijneveld’s evocative prose succeeds in drawing the reader into it. Passages in the book are reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a landmark text about mourning and grief, written in the aftermath of the death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Like Didion, Rijneveld lays bare the sheer volatility of the ordinary world, which is all the more poignant and tender in Jas’s account since it is presented from the perspective of a lonely child grappling with her circumstances. Hutchison’s translation is strikingly smooth and accessible, despite retaining the culturally specific aspects of the Dutch original. For instance, the name of the protagonist, Jas, means ‘coat’ in Dutch, which would lend another layer of meaning to the red coat Jas never took off her person, but Hutchison opted to keep the name untranslated to preserve the ‘Dutchness’ of the text.

While it’s not the first time that a writer has brought into the world a work of art that was informed by personal trauma, Rijneveld’s book is a valuable addition to the genre. It is a reminder of the restorative salve that words can be for those coping with unhealed wounds; for, without words, the author tells us, “everything and everybody stays inside you”.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on September 04, 2020
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