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Refractions of the Dying Light : OUT OF MIND by J. Bernlef translated by Adrienne Dixon (David R. Godine: $17.95; 150 pp.)

December 10, 1989|Ursula Hegi | Hegi's third book of fiction, "Floating in My Mother's Palm," is forthcoming from Poseidon Press. She is an associate professor in the MFA program in creative writing at Eastern Washington University. and

"If I need be--if I really have to--I shall invent a life for myself from minute to minute and believe in it." Dutch author J. Bernlef tests the boundaries of reality in "Out of Mind," an almost microscopical examination of senility.

Maarten Klein, a retired Dutch consultant for fisheries, is losing control of his mind and body. His illness takes him into a swift descent that begins with ordinary moments of forgetfulness--the time of day, someone's name, a misplaced item--and spirals him into the ultimate terror where he cannot trust his perceptions any longer and is left spinning in a whirlpool of fragmented images.

He tries to fight his disorientation by seeing it as normal for his age, tries to link it to childhood experiences of waking up when "the walls of your room were all wrong around you. In your mind you had to swivel the room around . . ." Though his link to his world has been severed, he survives on internal monologues that are fed by surprisingly rich images.

In his effective choice of Maarten's first-person, present-tense perspective, Bernlef forces his readers to participate in Maarten's terrifying journey through an unfamiliar landscape. Maarten's bewilderment mirrors the confusion he felt when he and his wife, Vera, first arrived in Gloucester, Mass. Like all immigrants, they were confronted by the different language, the unknown region, and they adapted though they always considered the Netherlands their home and continued to speak Dutch when alone. But in this internal terrain of chaos, any adaptation is deceptive: Moments shift, rules change and language ultimately fails. "I seem to lose words like another person loses blood."

Maarten also loses his connection to music, which always has been significant to him. In the early stages of his illness, music remained accessible to him. "I place my fingers in a chord on the keys, and suddenly I begin to play." But soon, the notes "won't come off the page and into my fingers."

Maarten's relationship to his wife, Vera, has been strong and caring throughout their 50-year marriage. "I am the only person who can see in her all the women she has been. Sometimes I touch her, and then I touch all of them at once, very gently." But as his disorder progresses, he begins to confuse her with his mother, even his grandmother. He doesn't know where to place this old woman who looks at him with worried eyes. Images of his first lover are far more vivid than memories of his life with Vera.

As Maarten weaves between different levels of reality, he tries to make sense of the actions that compromise him: getting dressed in the middle of the night, losing the dog during a walk, eating to the point of nausea, breaking a window. He struggles against the "feeling of being absent while being fully conscious, of being lost, of losing your way."

As the structure of his memory erodes, he finds it increasingly difficult to make connections. Incidents stand by themselves, isolated from experience, causing him to distrust his perceptions. He compares himself to a camera that "makes no distinction between important and unimportant, foreground and background." The major clues to this chaos, which he can't name or escape from, are Vera's reactions--grief, anger, pain.

Occasionally, Bernlef lets Maarten overhear Vera's comments about his disease, offering an opinion that lies outside his twisted awareness, a device that feels contrived to feed the reader information. Maarten's deterioration emerges far more effectively through his awareness.

When he loses control of his bowels, he feels betrayed by his body. This sense of humiliation causes a dramatic change in his condition--he disappears to himself until he can't even see his face in the mirror.

At times, "Out of Mind" is too close to a case study. What saves it from the clinical depiction of senility is Maarten's spirited fight against oblivion and the change in his voice that grows more lyrical as his disorientation deepens. Transitions between the different layers of his reality become more abrupt; sometimes his thoughts rush; other times they stop "rigid as a magic-lantern picture." The anxiety that has been a major reaction to his illness diminishes as his awareness centers on sensuous details: the scent of flowers, flecks of light, sounds of singing.

Bernlef, the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and drama, has written a dark book about irreversible loss--loss of self, of language, of relationships, of memories. Although the voice at the end of the novel suggests hope, the situation is bleak: Maarten is removed from his home and taken to a hospital where he lies nearly incoherent, "hidden from the eye of the world."

"Out of Mind" is Bernlef's first novel to be translated into English.

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