Book Review: DANCING WITH MR D: Notes of Life and Death by Bert Keizer

ann skea (
12 Sep 1996 23:43:43 GMT

Title: DANCING WITH MR D: Notes on life and death
Author: Bert Keizer
Publisher: Doubleday, Transworld Publishers (1996)
ISBN: 0 358 40798 X
Price: A$ 16.95(paperback) 324 pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea

Death is fascinating, certainly. But it is also frightening, especially in our society where
it is hidden away like a shameful secret. What is it, then, that has made this book "an
unexpected bestseller in Holland", as the blurb tells us, prompting its translation (by the
author) and its wider distribution? Curiosity, Bert Keizer might say: nosiness. The same thing
which brought him to medicine: "I wanted to help people, and I wanted a job with some
prestige, and then of course I'm the nosy sort".

Bert Keizer is not the first doctor to find publishing success whilst trying to demystify
death and dying. Sherwin Nyland's recent book,_How We Die_ (Chatto and Windus, 1994), was also
a bestseller. But where Nyland's book was seriously scientific in its descriptions, Keizer's
book is seriously funny. Bert Keizer works as a physician in a Dutch nursing home, and this
book of anecdotes, conversations, philosophy, jokes and contemplation is based on his daily
work. It explores illness, death and dying, euthanasia and medicine unsentimentally and
bluntly. So, in spite of being very funny, it is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish.

Keizer tells us that many changes have been made in this book to ensure professional
confidentiality and patient privacy. So, Keizer's alter-ego, Anton, is the voice we listen to.
And Anton does not have a great deal of faith in 'the health business' or in the so-called
benefits of medical knowledge. As a person who quotes Kafka, Beckett, Wittgenstein and
Nietzsche with familiar ease, he is also, understandably, cynical about God and religion.
Anton, in fact, is an firm existentialist who sees absurdity in life and death, but he is not
unfeeling or unemotional, and he suffers agonies when asked to help his patients to die. He
gives us an interesting insight into the dilemmas and the emotional conflict which face
doctors when their patients can legally ask this of them.

Anton describes in detail the chosen-death of a number of his patients and for each it was a
dignified release from a life which had become unbearable. But there is also his description
of an AIDS patient who tries to commit suicide by swallowing seven effervescent
denture-cleaning tablets. Later this man asks for euthanasia and is refused. Later still,
sitting up in bed on a sunny morning he comments, "Well if it's going to be this kind of
weather, then I won't take euthanasia but I'll take an ordinary funeral". He is the euthanasia
patient Anton dreads - the one who after all the doctor's soul-searching, the discussions and
agreements, when brought the 'hemlock' says, "Just put it there and I'll see what I'll do".

Alongside these glimpses of death are passages full of life. Anton shows us fragments of the
ongoing lives of other patients, of their various personalities and foibles, and of his own
reactions, dreams, thoughts and feelings as he deals with them and with his fellow workers. In
spite of the awful subject matter and of the almost compulsive irreverence of its author, this
book leaves you with much to think about. Keizer writes about people and medicine as fluently
as Oliver Sacks, but his style, purpose and preoccupations are different. A selection of the
section headings may suggest the range of Anton's reading, interests and sense of humour:
Cynics, believers, scientists/ Aryuna and the lake/ God's address/ Proust's madeleine, filthy
version/ Intimations of reincarnation/ Astrology and all that/ Dead is Dead/ Cancer research
and rain-making. But Keizer succinctly sums up his own sense of helplessness in the face of
death and disease in the short exchange which he chooses as a preface to the book:
Doctor, why am I ill?
Your heartvalve leaks.
Yes, but why me?
Wait, I'll call the vicar.

Copyright (c) Ann Skea 1996

Standard disclaimers apply. For permission to reproduce this text in any form contact Dr Ann