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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir



Adri van der Heijden

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To purchase Tonio

Title: Tonio
Author: Adri van der Heijden
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 532 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Tonio - US
Tonio - UK
Tonio - Canada
Tonio - India
Tonio - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : heartfelt and exhaustive

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 24/10/2015 Simon West
FAZ . 13/9/2012 Dirk Schumer
NZZ . 10/1/2012 Roman Bucheli
TLS . 28/10/2015 Sheila Hale

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reederís version has an authority of voice that convinces me it is reliable. (...) He has given sorrow words, but often they are the immediate words of a private journal. I canít help but feel that this is a strange choice to introduce van der Heijden to English-speaking readers." - Simon West, The Australian

  • "Das Buch, das dabei herausgekommen ist, wurde zur ungeheuerlichen Kraftprobe mit dem eigenen Schmerz. Natürlich hat der Schriftsteller diese Kraftprobe verloren. (...) Mit einer fotorealistischen Rückhaltlosigkeit, die für den Leser oft nur schwer auszuhalten ist, macht van der Heijden Bilanz. (...) Die Liebe zum eigenen Sohn hat die Gestalt dieses schwer zu verkraftenden und dennoch unfassbar eindrucksvollen Romans angenommen." - Dirk Schumer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Van der Heijden durchbricht alle Schamgrenzen, indem er sein Innerstes nach aussen kehrt, seinen zerrütteten Alltag schonungslos preisgibt und seinen herzzerreissenden Verlustschmerz zu einer radikalen Totenklage komponiert. (...) (D)ieses ebenso poetische wie erschütternde und lebenskluge Buch" - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Unfortunately, unedited outpurings of raw emotion -- however sincere and believable -- can have a numbing effect on a readerís sympathy; and the obsessively detailed episodes from Tonioís short life that are interspersed with the story of his parentsí grief never quite bring Tonio into focus except as an extension of his father. It may be, however, that the translation into a clumsily self-conscious American English does not do justice to a book which has won three literary awards in Holland and is the first of van der Heijdenís many works to appear in English." - Sheila Hale, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tonio is sub-titled A Requiem Memoir. Adri van der Heijden's only son, Tonio, died on 23 May 2010, after an early-morning accident on his bicycle, and Tonio begins with the police coming to inform van der Heijden and his wife Miriam about what happened and taking them to the hospital. The boy, just twenty-one, is still in surgery when they get there, but the case proves hopeless, and before the day is out they've pulled the plug on his life-support.
       In Tonio van der Heijden painstakingly describes that day, and then the days following, in a narrative that also constantly shifts back and forth, in short sub-chapters, between past and present as van der Heijden reminiscences about earlier times, both very recent -- like the last time they saw the boy -- and much more distant -- like when Miriam got pregnant, or when Tonio was a baby.
       Adri van der Heijden is a well-known and prolific -- and prolix -- Dutch author, well-known enough that the main reason they select the Buitenveldert Cemetery to bury their son is that: "it was a small, out-of-the-way graveyard, where we could be sure no paparazzi would be perched in the trees". English-speaking audiences are, of course, less familiar with the author, his work, or his reputation, yet as his most obviously personal work Tonio is also a good and revealing introduction to the author; if the picture he presents is clearly still subjective, shaped by the practiced novelist's hand, it nevertheless is also one in which he is at his most critically self-reflective in trying to put events in some perspective.
       A short mention -- "a postage-sized notice" -- in a newspaper condenses the accident and outcome to its essence, and in pointing it out to his wife van der Heijden observes:

The story of our wonderful boy in a couple of lines. There are Dutch literary critics who think I might take an example from this kind of brevity.
       Tonio died just as van der Heijden was about to begin one of his "100-day work blocks", one hundred consecutive days at work at his latest project -- not necessarily finishng it all off in one go, as with the current project, Kwaadschiks, which he had already devoted two such blocks to and which he was now planning on completing in one last hundred-day stretch of work. (Needless to say, he did not get to it then, nor for a while later; he did, however, complete it and publication of the novel is slated for November, 2015.)
       When his editor visits him a few weeks after Tonio's death van der Heijden debates about holding off writing about Tonio, and instead only looking back on these events a few years later:
Or, if I write it now, this summer, it will be an account from within a situation that took place such a short time ago ... straight from the mishmash of emotions ... Writing then becomes part of the struggle, and vice versa. The distraught parents reconstructing the last days and hours of their son ... because everything is imperative ... they cling to every detail ...'
     Poetical bullshit. I have no choice. I cannot not write about him, for him, now, because at this moment nothing else matters. It's either write about Tonio, or not write at all -- it's not a matter of choice. Without even having thought about it, without consciously setting out to, I was already doing it.
       Van der Heijden walks readers through the last awful day, as he and his wife get the news and rush to the hospital. The back and forth to other memories -- such as, on the way to hospital, recollections of rushing on the day of Tonio's premature birth -- help keep the narrative from sinking oppressively into the darkness of the tragedy. The same approach continues for the days and weeks that follow. Among the things preoccupying the couple is trying to trace and recreate Tonio's last hours and days, from the last time they had seen him. They get his friends to recount their last hours together, and hunt for the girl whom he had taken photographs of at their house recently -- wondering and hoping that maybe there had been a budding romance there. Because the girl was very new in his life she proves hard to track down, though eventually they do manage.
       Eventually, they also try to learn more about the accident and Tonio's death itself, visiting with the surgeon who operated on Tonio as well as the police (who appear to conduct a thorough investigation into the relatively straightforward accident, the ultimate result being: "the prosecutor's view was that both parties were guilty"). Finally, they also collect his things -- including the barely-damaged bicycle -- and watch the surveillance film that captured much of the accident (though, with its stop-frames, missed the moment of impact itself).
       Numbed and devastated, van der Heijden and his wife both turn to the relief afforded by alcohol and sedatives after their son's death. Writing remains an outlet for van der Heijden, but he recognizes that:
the struggle against a continually burgeoning adversary is still in full swing. The outcome is uncertain: either we bite the dust, or the struggle will continue to rage until our dying day.
       The doting parents clearly deeply loved their son and had a close relationship with him -- the somewhat hotheaded van der Heijden notes he never managed to get into a real argument with his son -- and van der Heijden writes like the typical proud father, adding each new piece of information he gets from Tonio's friends or acquaintances to the memorial portrait of his son in his mind's eye. In fact, of course, Tonio is pretty much as unremarkable as any twenty-one-year-old: he sounds like a nice if rather hapless fellow, still very much trying to find his way. If Tonio's life-story alone is fairly unexceptional, his father's requiem memoir is nevertheless also more than just a heartfelt outpouring of loss. It is, in a sense, also a confessional -- van der Heijden's own memoir -- and, moving out in concentric rings to take in those around Tonio as well, and a great deal of family history, offers a broader portrait beyond the individual.
       Writing is van der Heijden's outlet -- indeed, he already realizes: "The real question is: what to write after this ?" -- the notoriously wordy author keeping himself afloat in this outpouring-flood:
Writing for and about him is the best way to get as close to him as possible, the person he was and the absence he now is, to talk to him and sit in silence with him. In this way I keep him alive, and when my work is finished, this requiem can, in a dialogue with the reader keep him alive a while longer.
       Many of van der Heijden and his wife's actions arise out of a sense of obligation they feel to their son -- one way of carrying on, for them. Occasionally van der Heijden is tempted by the easier path, but his wife thinks and argues otherwise (as, fundamentally, with these occasional exceptions, he does too):
     Now that he's gone, we can just let ourselves go to pot. Him kaput, us kaput. Maybe we owe it to him.'
     'If I really put myself in his shoes, Adri ... no, he wouldn't have wanted it. We have to go on. Because of him. For him.'
       Van der Heijden flailing attempts to come to grips with events, and his constant questioning are a convincing record of dealing with such personal trauma. So up-close and personal as to sometimes get uncomfortable, this baring of a soul certainly feels honest. But van der Heijden's larger-than-life personality is what dominates: even in homage to his son he completely overshadows him -- something he also expresses concern about, and tries to counteract by heaping attention on details of Tonio's life, but can never quite surmount.
       It's perhaps inevitable -- survivors get the final word; the dead have no say left -- and likely makes for better reading: van der Heijden is a far more interesting personality than his unfinished son could possibly be, even as van der Heijden tries very hard to be inclusive, to read into episodes from Tonio's past and near-present. But twenty-one is a difficult cut-off age -- no longer with the infinite potential of the young child, yet without almost any of the accomplishments of the fully-formed adult. (Meanwhile, the father's quirks -- he still writes on electronic typewriters ! he doesn't have a computer ! -- or Miriam's very old divorced parents, among others, make for the more intriguing side-stories.)
       Tonio veers from nearly-clinical straight description to the melodramatic, van der Heijden trying -- and, it seems, largely succeeding, in remaining honest in his (self-)depiction. Though an homage to the son, it is very much the father's book -- because his own perspective is the only one he can fully inhabit. Somewhat surprisingly, Tonio is undeniably tragic but not very sad; in so closely analyzing his own grief and guilt distances himself from reader-empathy. In this, Tonio is much like his fiction -- as also it is in its thoroughness.
       A good and more personal introduction, notable also for its sense of immediacy, to a significant author, Tonio is a fairly impressive stand-alone work too, but it certainly is also more interesting when seen as part of his larger œuvre.

       Note that the English-language publisher did not choose the much-discussed (in the book) photograph of Tonio as Oscar Wilde -- which graces Tonio's tombstone and which van der Heijden included in his responses to every condolence-letter he received -- for the cover-image, unlike the Dutch original:

Tonio cover

       The 'selfie' on the cover of the English-language (and German) editions is perhaps the more flattering picture, but it seems a shame not to have at least also reproduced the Oscar Wilde-one, given its prominence in the text itself.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 September 2015

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Tonio: Reviews: A. F. Th. van der Heijden: Other books by A. F. Th. van der Heijden under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Adrianus Franciscus Theodorus van der Heijden was born in 1951. He is the author of numerous highly acclaimed novels, including the multi-volume saga, De tandeloze tijd.

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© 2015-2016 the complete review

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