Book Review: The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes by Lieke Marsman
Lieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes, translated from the Dutch by Sophie Collins (author of Who Is Mary Sue?), is part poetry collection, part prose, and it centres around the writer’s experience with cancer. Marsman situates her diagnosis and treatment in the larger social and political conversation about illness, healthcare, and in particular, the Dutch current state of affairs regarding these issues. She evokes the writings of Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag, both of whom wrote about their experiences with cancer, and strikes a balance in her own writing between the personal honesty of Lorde and the social considerations of Sontag.
The collection opens with ten poems, the majority of which are a variation on the collection’s title, and as she writes later about her first MRI: “The MRI tunnel announces and reannounces subsequent scans. The following scan will last five minutes, the following scan will last four minutes, the following scan will last one minute, the following scan will last five minutes.” The poems are short and, when they focus on cancer, they are more phenomenological than descriptive – what they indirectly describe is the change of state of being that comes with diagnosis and treatment (or, in Marsman’s case, surgery) as opposed to describing the events themselves. On most occasions, though, the poems are about more than the personal experience and inevitably branch out. For example, in “The Following Scan Will Last Three Minutes” she writes about the political rhetoric regarding immigration in Europe, multiculturalism, and non-obvious political violence. Read together, the poems paint a wider picture of the writer – sh’s not just a cancer patient, but a member of a society who, yes, has been diagnosed with cancer and that entails a variety of experiences and emotions, but is also active in other social issues.
The second part of the collection features a three-part essay that starts with the straightforward description of Marsman’s pain, diagnosis, prognosis, and surgery, evolves into commentary on the political climate in The Netherlands, particularly about healthcare, and closes with a meditation on both her experience with the illness and the healthcare system she encountered. Marsman’s critique of the Dutch government, prefaced by the revelation that the administration had been enormous tax-cuts to big corporations like Shell and Unilever, develops into her first-hand account of the tangible results of a profit-driven system that believes it can afford to shrink the healthcare industry and a health insurance structure that utilises the government-legitimised policies to get out of providing its clients with necessary coverage like psychological help to cancer patients.
When she goes back home after the diagnosis and reads Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, Marsman’s own writing becomes similar to theirs in how they write about the personal and the political. Even though brief, in this sense The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes can be compared to memoirs in the style of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts or Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. In these books, the writer is confronted with a personal change and they try, through writing both about themselves and about the wider social context – which often extends to considering how other writers and/or artists have faced a similar situation – to make something more than a catalogue of experiences and events in someone’s life.
The collection ends with a translator’s note, which is in fact a series of letters from Sophie Collins to Marsman. Being a translator myself, I have often heard it said that a good translator must be completely invisible in the text. While I have always had my doubts about that, Collins here proves that her letters only add to the collection. Sometimes illustrated with brief anecdotes, she writes about the translation process and the feeling of shame, after pointing out challenges faced when translating this collection. It is a question of fidelity that all translators, especially those of literary work, have faced and pondered at some point, where the text they produce is not a mirror image of the original, and she writes about how such values systems of fidelity are perhaps not beneficial to the work. But, most importantly, what this section adds to the book is something that is rarely present in translated works – the relationship between a writer and their translator, and particularly when they know each other and spend time together and the final book is ultimately a genuine collaboration.
The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes, written by Lieke Marsman and translated by Sophie Collins, is out now by Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.