The opposite of a person by Lieke Marsman’s critique – climate and Copernicus meet in the Italian Alps | Fiction
JThe Dutch writer Lieke Marsman has established herself in this country as a poet of exceptional competence with her collection The next scan will take five minutes (2019), inspired by his diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer at the age of 27.
Her first novel, The opposite of a person predates this collection, but now appears in English, translated, like her poetry, with empathy and clarity by Sophie Collins. It’s sort of like the most modern book you’ll ever read: not only is the apparent subject matter timely (climate change), but it also fits in with a number of current literary trends.
For example, we are accustomed in non-fiction to the genre-defying book – it is practically de rigueur now for non-fiction to mix essay, memoir and report – but Marsman brings this style to his novel, which combines fiction, essays and poetry. It is also part of what might be called “space literature”, a narrative made up of short paragraphs surrounded by white spaces, as practiced by authors such as Jenny Offill and Sarah Manguso, who use it to build gradual effects.
Marsman’s narrator is Ida, a climatologist in a relationship with another woman, Robin. Ida has been invited to do an internship in the Italian Alps, where she will learn more about the human impact on the climate and about plans to demolish a hydroelectric dam: a symbol of this human impact.
Ida struggles to feel like she fits in—Collins in her translator’s note speculates that Ida is “neurologically atypical”—and, based on her mother’s assertion that people are bad, in her childhood, she wanted to be “the opposite of a person”. “I tried to achieve this by first learning to walk on my hands” and then “talking as little as possible”.
This terse approach persists in its narrative, where we don’t learn much about Ida’s relationship with Robin until the end, when a dramatic development occurs that doesn’t seem deserved. Prose is much more persuasive when in essay or report form; Marsman writes powerfully on natural and man-made disasters.
The essays spliced through fiction are complex and enriching and, like the narrative, address the question of belonging, reflecting, for example, on the limits of identity politics. “I regularly visit websites designed for lesbians and obediently watch every new movie or series featuring a lesbian protagonist,” says Ida, noting that “shared sexuality does not guarantee good conversation.” And it all brings us back to the inescapable subject of climate change, which Ida links, in a fascinating essay on Copernicus, to humanity’s historic insistence that we must be at the center of the world. “Men are miserable by necessity,” she writes, quoting Giacomo Leopardi, “and determined to consider themselves miserable by accident.”
Ida, reflecting on her struggles with people, observes that books are “friends” who are “funny, smart, and available around the clock”. Well, it’s not a laugh riot – what report on climate change is it? – but otherwise it’s a description you could apply to his own story.