Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent
I first came across Dutch writer, Erwin Mortier’s, Stammered Songbook, a number of years ago and was almost instantly captivated by its use of language, it’s honesty and originality. It has remained one of my favourite pieces of writing about Dementia ever since. Mortier begins documenting his mother’s descent into Dementia as he notices her becoming confused. He continues to write about her and the development of her condition until she is close to death. In beautiful, lyrical language he weaves the story of his mother’s life around her journey with Dementia so time becomes a fleeting, nebulous thing. Past is present and present is past. This confused notion of the temporal allows the reader to explore the confusion which Mortier’s mother is experiencing and how it’s affecting her family.
The narrative is written in first person throughout. Mortier’s account of his mother’s Dementia is largely told through his relationship with her. We see his mother through his eyes and we also see how he imagines her seeing the world, including himself.
“Today my mother gave me a thorough dusting, thinking I was a piece of furniture.”
Mortier also records his father’s responses to his mother’s decline. There are dozens of tiny poignant snapshots of what a marriage looks like when placed under the strain of a Dementia diagnosis. His father tries to care for his wife at home and eventually, succumbing to the strain this causes, makes the decision to place her in a care facility. Both father and mother share Mortier’s sympathy and also his frustration. He loves them. He feels sorry for them. But he also subtly acknowledges that the situation they’re facing isn’t easy on either of them, or on him. The reader can sense the honest frustration implied within interactions like the following conversation with his father.
“I say: no one expects you to be strong. No one expects you to be able to handle this.
It’s quite something, he says, leaving someone behind whom you’ve known for fifty years.”
With Mortier’s mother, the relationship is even more complex. He talks of her helplessness and her dependence upon others, including himself, for the most basic kinds of care and provisions. He is very honest about the particularities of physically caring for an elderly person’s bodily needs though most of the narrative focuses in on his mother’s mental decline. He makes a point early on of acknowledging a gradual erosion of his mother’s self.
“Her “I” is becoming lost. That “something” that makes people so recognizably themselves.”
Looking after his mother not only involves practical care, but also -as the person chronicling the end of her life- a kind of representation. Mortier is speaking on behalf of his mother, voicing the experiences she can no longer explain and filling in gaps in the narrative where her memory has eroded. There is a responsibility inherent within this role to admit the points at which his own ability to accurately convey her experience runs out. At times the structure of Stammered Songbook is most reminiscent of prose poetry: small blocks of text which explore an idea or a theme using lyrical, resonant language.
“Will a day come when no one
remembers the right mistakes, no one still
knows what speech impediment
exactly to feed?
Will anyone bore through your sandcastle
of semantics with
firebreaks and understanding?”
Mortier leaves so much white space in his writing. He has a poet’s sensibility when it comes to allowing his word’s to resonate and be interpreted by the reader. For me, this makes Stammered Songbook a particularly effective Dementia narrative. Little is fixed or concrete within this text. Everything’s up for interpretation and misrepresentation, as is often the case for those living with Dementia like Mortier’s mother.
Stammered Songbook was published by Pushkin Press in 2015