As I was reading this novel, I kept flipping back to the line drawing on the cover. Is it of the main character, Hendrik Groen? Is it of the author? Are they one and the same?
The drawing is an engaging illustration of an elderly man with a soft swoop of white hair. His face is lined, his shoulders slightly stooped — but those eyes! They are bright and intense, thoughtful and kind. There is wisdom in those eyes. Whoever this is clearly is not a pushover. I liked him right away.
There was no author photo for me to look at. (Just that drawing again, on the back flap.) The book — first published in Holland in 2014 and an international bestseller — was published anonymously. I don’t know why.
“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” is set in a retirement home in Amsterdam. The title appears to be based on Sue Townsend’s 1982 satire, “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾,” but this book, while sometimes funny, is not satire. It is pierced with darkness.
The story is about Hendrik’s resolution to live his last years to the fullest. He is elderly, his health is good but not perfect (there is a slight dribbling problem, and some gout, as well as concerns about falling), his wife is in a memory-care unit, his only child has died, and his friends are in various stages of decrepitude. Old age is not cheerful.
The retirement home is run by a Nurse Ratched-like administrator who enforces, to the hilt, arbitrary rules from an unseen rule book.
Hendrik goes along to get along, and he hates himself for it. He can feel himself slipping into bitterness and depression; he knows he needs to fight to remain true to himself. And so he starts a journal, to have somewhere safe to tell the truth. “Another year, and I still don’t like old people,” he writes. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.”
The secret diary covers one year, and during that year much happens. Hendrik and his friends start the Old But Not Dead Club to force themselves to be more sociable. Hendrik buys a mobility scooter, to regain some of his independence. And he falls chastely in love.
The Old But Not Dead Club hosts monthly outings, some successful, some comically (but also wincingly) overambitious: boat excursions, golf lessons, wine tastings, gourmet meals. The club members come home worn out and usually happy, only to face the petty jealousy of the other residents, who are too infirm or simply too unpleasant to be included. The childishness and cliquishness of the retirement home feel perfectly true: Such pettiness exists in all other aspects of life, so why not old age?
Some of the book’s most poignant scenes are of Hendrik on his scooter, feeling the wind and rain in his hair and freedom again (at 4 miles per hour).
“I took a spin through the misty meadows of Waterland yesterday in the late afternoon,” he writes. “I felt at peace. That may sound a bit cliché, but I can’t describe it any other way. I even started feeling a bit too peaceful and almost landed in a ditch. ... It started to get dark. It drizzled a bit, but I didn’t care.”
All of this is engaging and very real. None of it is sweet, or cute. The author understands what it means to get older, to lose dignity and independence, to lose friends to dementia or death. The author also understands friendship and how crucial human contact is — especially when life is contracting.
This might not be a book for someone who has achieved a great age, but it is certainly a book for someone headed there, or whose parents are headed there.
A second diary, “As Long As There Is Life,” has been sold to a Dutch publisher. On the cover is that same serene face, a bit more wrinkled, a bit more aged, perhaps a bit more sad. It’s nice to know that Hendrik is still writing, old but not yet dead.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old
By: Anonymous; translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans.
Publisher: Grand Central, 378 pages, $26.