Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why The Healing Gods Are Twins

                                                    Die Welt ist weit, die Welt ist schön,
                                                    wer weiss ob wir uns widersehen.

                                                    The world is wide, the world is beautiful
                                                    who knows if we shall meet each other again.

The Twins by Tessa de Loo 

Riddhi and Siddhi, Romulus and Remus, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu, Pemba and Musokoroni, Yama and Manu, Castor and Pollux, Jacob and Esau: world mythology is replete with such contentious, if complimentary, twins. Alternately cursed and revered, they are doppelgängers, alter egos; they are light and darkness, good and evil, halves of some strange,  uncanny whole. What is interesting is the extent to which twins, for all their legendary accursedness, have been linked to the salubrious, the healthful, the good. “It has long been noted in folklore, mythology, and religion, that a pair of divine or saintly twins were often associated with the healing arts,” writes Leon D. Hankoff in his fascinating essay, ‘Why the Healing Gods are Twins’. No wonder that healing—that of two sisters separated by war—lies at the heart of Dutch author Tessa de Loo’s internationally acclaimed novel, The Twins. 

The story opens in the present day, in the Belgian city of Spa, a resort town made famous by Pliny the Roman and Tsar Peter the Great, by Descartes, Christina of Sweden, and the Count of Orléans, where the principle character, an elderly Dutch woman named Lotte, has been sent by her children to take the cure for her arthritis, to relax and enjoy the health-giving waters.  There, one morning, while resting in the clinic between pristine sheets, she is torn from her reverie by the grating sound of German: “Goodness me, what is this, a morgue?”

Instinctively, she slid deeper into the bed.  The language the woman had made the inappropriate remark in was German. German! What was a German doing here, in Spa, where every square, every public garden, had a monument with lists of the fallen of two world wars carved in stone? Her own country was swarming with health resorts? Why Spa?

Hoping the “elderly Walküre” will simply leave her alone, Lotte does her best to ignore her, closing hers eyes and breathing deeply, but to no avail. When the bumptious woman inquires in French as to whether or not the water in the bottles on the table is safe to drink, Lotte makes the mistake—a reflex, a yearning?—of responding to the woman in German, perfect German. “Ach so! You’re German!” exclaims the German with delight, and the fuse between them is lit.

So begins this deeply gratifying tale of the painful reunion of two sisters, twins, separated in their youth by World War II, then drawn together again by chance, by arthritis, by fate. In a style and setting reminiscent of Mann’s Magic Mountain, Lotte and her sister, Anna—one Dutch, one German—grope their way back through the past, through the layers of guilt and longing and recrimination.

The setting is significant, both symbolically and logistically; pinched tightly between Germany, the Netherlands, and France, Belgium (in particular the famous healing resort of Spa) is the perfect stage for this humble, if allegorical reunion, an intermediate and relatively neutral corner of Europe that is nonetheless deeply scarred by the cataclysmic history of Europe. Writes Tony Judt, “There are probably more battlefields, battle sites, and reminders of ancient and modern wars in Belgium than in any comparatively sized territory in the world.” 

Bit by bit, between peat and carbonated baths, over coffee and pastries, and in the course of their many and aimless walks through the damp and wintry streets, Lotte and Anna struggle slowly, tentatively, in the course of this fine novel, to unravel the tangled history that binds them—as Germans, as sisters, as twins.   

Tessa de Loo (b. 1945) is a Dutch writer whose novel The Twins has been translated un 25 languages.  She is also the author of The Book of Doubt (2013). Splitting her time between Portugal and France, she is one of the most successful writers in the Dutch language.

* “Why The Healing Gods Are Twins” was published in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 1977. 

Peter Adam Nash

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