Getting lost appears to be a major theme in European literature. From Odysseus’ long detour home, to Dante’s midlife crisis in the selva oscura, to the abandoned children of the Brothers Grimm, it would seem that the “straight way” is rarely the best way to make an interesting story. “As you set out on the way to Ithaca,” C.P. Cavafy wrote, offering advice to both storytellers and ordinary folk, “hope that the road is a long one,/filled with adventures, filled with discoveries. The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,/Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them.”*
The woman who calls herself “Emilie” in the Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker’s evocative and unsettling short novel Ten White Geese has gone astray in various ways. Her disorientation is both geographical and psychological; it may also turn out to be, as we increasingly suspect, fatal. After an affair with one of her first-year students, she has left her teaching position, as a lecturer in “translation studies,” and her husband in Amsterdam to hole up secretly—with her “books, quite a bit of bedding,” and a single mattress—on an unkempt rural farm in Wales, with an occasional view of the distant sea “over the tops of the now almost leafless trees” in one direction and Mount Snowdon in another.
Emilie—the name she’s assumed in Wales to preserve her anonymity—has made a decisive detour in her life (the Dutch title of the novel is De Omweg, “The Detour”). She seems to have chosen Wales as a secluded place sealed off from urban Amsterdam, and because she speaks excellent English, a language that figures in her professional work as a translator of poetry. And yet she can’t quite tell, as she contemplates “the path you could find only by looking into the distance,” where she stands in her small adopted world. Her new neighbors, especially the local sheep farmer Rhys Jones, seem furtive and predatory, more interested in her money or her body than in her companionship. The work she has brought along with her—an unfinished dissertation on the inferior poems of Emily Dickinson—seems remote and irrelevant to her present circumstances. Increasingly her thoughts stray, alarmingly, to a beloved uncle, who filled his pockets with heavy objects from the kitchen of the hotel he worked at and walked out into a pond, only to find that “hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in.” Immured alone in her dilapidated farmhouse during the lengthening winter nights, Emilie comes to feel that she “inhabited this house the way he’d stood in that pond.”
Immobilized in her life, she is intensely aware of the passage of time. Everything around her seems to amplify the ticking clock in the kitchen: the days counting down relentlessly to Christmas; the throbbing, intensifying pain “like toothache through my whole body”; even the rhythmic ticking of a dog’s nails on the wooden stairs …
* “Ithaca,” Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf, 2009). ↩
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“Ithaca,” Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf, 2009). ↩