Out of Mind
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  • Out of Mind
  • J. Bernlef
  • Published by: Querido
  • Level: Intermediate
  • First Published in: 1984

An aging Dutch immigrant living in Massachusetts slowly descends into senility and dementia over the span of a week.

Review posted: 15/10/2013

J. Bernlef, whose name refers to a blind poet from the 8th century, is the pseudonym of author Hendrik Jan Marsman, born in 1937. His debut was in 1960, with Kokkels. He was the editor of several magazines between 1958 and 1987, and he also worked as a playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist. Hersenschimmen (released in English as Out of Mind, though more literally translated as "Shadows in the Mind") is a psychological romance novel. The protagonist and narrator is Maarten, and readers look at the world through the eyes of this demented old man. The text is written in such a way that readers can actually feel what dementia is like. At first, the book starts with normal written language, but as the disease progresses, the sentences become shorter, descriptions become more and more infrequent, and the story begins to make less sense, as if we, the readers, were going through the same process of losing our memories and grip on reality.

"The text is written in such a way that readers can actually feel what dementia is like."

This novel is part of modern Dutch literature and has been on high school reading lists since it was published. The narrative, which spans a week but covers 65 years in flashbacks, is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, although Maarten returns to the Netherlands in his recollections. His surrounding environment echoes his deterioration, as the snowy winter landscape makes it impossible to tell things apart. For the past 15 years, he has lived with his wife Vera in Gloucester, though their two kids, Kitty and Fred, now live far away. On a typical Sunday, Maarten is looking out the window, waiting to see the schoolchildren who walk past his house every day to catch their school bus. Only after Vera tells him it’s Sunday, and that therefore the schoolchildren will not be appearing, does Maarten agree that he made a mistake. He becomes more and more forgetful during the day, until he finally ends up in the washroom, tearing up a newspaper and finding himself unable to finish a crossword puzzle.

His decline continues on Monday, as he serves his wife sugar with her coffee, though she has had it black for the past ten years. Then, he gets lost walking his dog Robert, and to make matters worse, he loses the dog as well. His mistakes gradually become more prevalent: Maarten stops recognizing his own doctor and distrusts him, he confuses his own wife for his mother, and he breaks a window to let his dog inside. Vera eventually enlists the help of a nurse and Maarten is tied to his bed. Maarten blames Vera and the nurse for anything and everything, and he expresses himself with foul language. He dirties the bed but doesn’t understand what’s going on: “A large bed. I’m not really lying comfortably in it. What a dirty smell huh?! My ass hurts, I have icy buttocks. I’m trying to get up, but my legs are tied. What happened? Where did I move to? Where is this bed? Well?” Maarten runs away from the house when he gets the chance, but a lighthouse keeper brings him back home. On Saturday, Maarten destroys all pictures in his photo album, in an attempt to avert his fate. On the same day, the ambulance brings Maarten to a clinic.

"The main character’s point of view is expressed through sometimes crumbling language."

Hersenschimmen does not contain difficult language. Present and past tenses are used alternatively, which means that past and present are intertwined. Maarten’s point of view is expressed through sometimes crumbling language. In particular, at the end, Maarten uses short, incoherent sentences and words: “There’s breathing everywhere… they all came here to sleep together for the last time… who with who doesn’t matter anymore… no names… no more faces… only breathing… sighs…”



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