Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
Meet Désiré Cordier, a very unusual kind of hero. Fed up with the drudgery of retired life, hen-pecked by a bossy wife and irritated by his extended family, retired librarian Désiré hatches a cunning plan. He will gradually feign the symptoms of Dementia until he lands himself a place in a retirement home and a much-needed dose of peace and quiet. All goes according to plan. Désiré is able to fake his way through the memory test his doctor sets him and soon finds himself a resident in Winterlight Home for the Elderly.
“On paper it seemed easy enough: I would more or less crumble away like one of those lonely bluffs you see in Westerns. Slowly, but inexorably, with something resembling grandeur, I would blur and gradually disappear in the mist I myself was discharging.”
However, his plan doesn’t live up to expectations. Constantly feigning Dementia isn’t an enjoyable way of living. He’s beset by daily indignities and frustrated at his own limitations. He’s also shocked to discover he’s not the first resident to have come up with a similar exit plan. Plus, the retirement home isn’t as safe as he’d hoped -he’s sharing his living quarters with a war criminal- and Rosa Rozendaal, his childhood crush is too advanced in her own Dementia to return his amorous advances. It isn’t long before Désiré begins to question the wisdom of what he’s done.
Ably translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, Verhulst’s short novel is a darkly comic exploration of life within a retirement home. It’s funny, honest, sometimes brutally so, and full of well-placed observations about the staff, the residents and the visitors. By crafting a protagonist who’s feigning Dementia Verhulst offers the readers a unique insight into how a person with Dementia is treated and perceived by the people around him. In the following section he describes his daughter’s final visit to Winterlight.
“She could no longer bear to visit someone who didn’t recognise her. The only man she was willing to recognise as her father had dissolved in the mists of his own memory. This was going to be her last trip to this den of misery, her final symbolic visit, to round it all off.”
In normal circumstances a person living with advanced Dementia might be incapable of articulating the experience with the insight and eloquence we get from Désiré. The first person narrative is incredibly affecting. By the time we get to the end of the novel and, like Désiré, realise his family and the people who care for him can no longer see him for the person he is, we understand his frustration and empathise with his lack of autonomy. The Latecomer is a clever novel which uses a bold plot device to place the reader firmly in the shoes of a person living with Dementia. As such, I think it’s a really useful read.
The Latecomer was published by Portobello Books in 2015