The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old by Name Not Revealed
If there is one book you should read before the end of the year, then this is it. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old is an understated masterpiece.
Our unlikely hero is eighty-three and a resident of an Amsterdam care home for the aged. He has his aches and pains but thankfully nothing that’s going to kill him immediately. Yet Hendrik knows that he hasn’t long left and so plans to enjoy every minute left to him.
He has good friends there. His roguish co-conspirator, Evert, is up to all sorts of mischief as a means of avoiding boredom. He fights small battles against a system that treats the residents as if they were infantile. Both Hendrik and Evert try various means of upsetting their nemesis, the battleaxe Director of the facility known as Mrs Stelwagen. The results are hilarious.
Joining the two twilight-years-rebels are Rian and Antoine, a married couple who excel at cooking; Edward Schermer, who doesn’t say much because he suffered from a stroke, but when he does speaks he always says something worth listening to (bit like an Ent); Grietje de Boer, who is begining to show signs of Alzheimer’s but who is carrying on with great heart for as long as she can; Graeme Gorter, who seems like the most sensible of the bunch, and of course Eefje Brand, who is a rebellious minx and the object of Hendik’s growing affections. They make for a lovable group.
The stalwart pensioners decide that they need to form a club to arrange for excursions that are slightly off-the-wall. To this end, The Old-But-Not-Dead Club is founded, to great success. Their adventures become the stuff of legend throughout the care home, complete with not a little envy from other residents not included.
I won’t describe their exploits as I want you to discover them for yourselves. I will state that the manner in which the erratic behaviour of the club is portrayed is subtle yet insightful. Added to the excursions, we also learn of how life is inside such a large building full of those who suffer from a plethora of complains both real and imagined. As much fun as this can be, there is also an underlying message and it is there in which the true beauty of this novel lies.
We all know people who are aged. Perhaps you are advanced in years yourself. But how many of us ever give much thought to how it is for those who are obliged to move into assisted living facilities? Have any of us considered the loss of privacy? The loss of independence? The bickering and politicking? The fear of imminent demise? How it feels to wear an adult nappy? The fear of losing your memory and identity? Fear of losing your mobility? The food? Fear of government cutbacks? Bullying? There are so many things to consider.
I have driven past many such homes. Although I have occasionally spared a thought for those inside, I have never taken serious time to try to understand how it is for the residents. The Secret Diary has changed that for me.
The author, whose identity is kept secret, has constructed a beautiful commentary upon how the aged are treated in western societies. It has been said that civilizations can be judged upon how they treat their elderly. That is true. Western civilizations do not always fare well under such scrutiny. This novel puts a human face upon the plight of the aged as they struggle to cope with all that life is throwing at them.
When presenting a story about those who are more vulnerable in society, it is all too easy to wallow in mawkish content. There is no end of pain and embarrassment for an author to latch onto in order to tug at the heartstrings of a reader. Although The Secret Diary will draw more than one tear from your eyes, and despite the fact that the lump in your throat may remain for quite some time, the author has steadfastly refused to dwell upon the sadness. This is a book about the resilience of the human spirit and the inherent decency that exists in people who are reaching the end of their days.
Hendrik’s own background is mentioned only in passing. Yet that mention is enough to create solid context for our hero. His pain is not exploited for copy. It is touched upon only that we might get a better glimpse of who Hendrik really is. After reading this novel, I wanted Hendrik to adopt me as his Irish grandchild (or should that be child? After all, look at the ages of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart and Billy Joel as Dads to newborns). He and his friends come across as extremely admirable and lovable. I wonder how many such people live in care facilities without anyone to visit them, or to care.
Of course, as Hendrik points out frequently, there are those residents who are horrible and best avoided. He states his desire to possibly kill one or two in his diary. Yet the overall picture is one of abandonment and a reduction of dignity for those who lead proud and independent lives whilst still trying to remain positive about the short time they have left.
(not much sympathy needed for this individual pensioner)
There is a constant commentary about many aspects of life in the Netherlands. Immigration, elections, monarchy and euthanasia are among the many subjects broached. We are given the viewpoints of the elderly to add to those already in the public domain. Upon finishing this book, there is a lot to think about.
The ending is remarkable. It’s not protracted or over-sentimental even though it could have been. Hendrik’s diary covers one year of his life from January 1st, but there is light in that a sequel is possible. I hope to read it.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old is one of the most thoughtful and beautifully presented books that I have ever read, even if the title is a mouthful. It should be included on the curriculum of every school so that the young might have more respect for the not-so-young. It is a must for anyone who is going to grow old and even those who believe that they can never grow old. I wonder which you are…
Sult scale rating: 9 out of 10. This is an important novel in helping to shed light upon the world of those who have given so much, and have little left. That should hopefully sum us all up one day (but not yet…).