Hay 2012: Gerbrand Bakker

The Detour

Gerbrand Bakker’s brilliant the Detour sees a Dutch woman flee scandal at home to find refuge in North Wales. The first question Bakker is asked at Hay goes ‘Is Wales the detour of the novel?’ ‘No’, he replies. After a lengthy pause, he adds, ‘I give very short answers’. Not the best recipe for a good talk, you might think.

However, the answer soon proves to have resulted more from humour than taciturnity, for Bakker comes across as an engaging, likeable, and grounded fellow. And one who obviously loves Wales too (he has climbed Snowdon over ten times), which is a surefire way of getting the audience onside.

The Detour is a beautiful, slow meditation on sadness, loneliness and landscape. It revolves around a married lecturer having a relationship with a young Welsh hiker as she waits for the trouble that happened in Holland to catch up with her. As Bakker says, ‘it’s a thriller, that’s not a thriller’ – the type of neat summary to make a reviewer regret not having thought of that line himself to use in his own review.

Bakker’s skills as a trained gardener are wonderfully brought out in the book, with luscious descriptions of fauna and flora. This passion is also nicely brought out in the talk, with Bakker talking earnestly about his love of Monty Don, and discussing the technical literary problem of the environment being so central to the Detour, but with the main character being a city-woman without a natural eye for her surroundings.

In the talk, Bakker is at pains to give credit to the book’s translator, David Colmer. It is a better book in English than in Dutch, we are told. The art of translation is a massively under-discussed literary topic, and it is heartening to hear Bakker’s praise for the Australian.

Bakker’s humour is again on display in an anecdote he tells us about the time his debut novel The Twin won the prestigious IMPAC award. He sent his proposed winning speech to the organisers, but was horrified to find it sent back to him with red pen having been taken to it. He threw the letter in the bin, he says, finding himself ‘speechless’. At the awards ceremony, his victory speech was made up of talking about a Eurovision Song Contest entry and playing the tune in its entirety. The Hay audience were the first people to be told the reasons for his odd actions, which had caused a minor ripple in the generally still waters of literary-fiction-in-translation.

‘A writer can never be wiser than the book he has written’, said the author Per Petterson, Bakker told us at the start when explaining his reluctance to give detailed answers about his book. A neat line, but one Bakker needn’t worry about himself, as, judging by the after-talk queue for a signed copy of the Detour, when he speaks, he’s only going to make a good impression.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis