Book review: Martin Michael Driessen, ‘The pelican’
Theater director and translator Martin Michael Driessen made his debut as a writer in 1999 with the novel ‘Gars’ and has since proved prolific in that capacity as well. His novel ‘De pelikaan’ was published in November 2017. The subtitle of the work is ‘A comedy’, but it is a comedy that gradually takes on grimmer traits. From a rather funny story about the human deficiency in a sleepy town, the reader gradually ends up in a story about the devastation caused by war.
- Author: Martin Michael Driessen
- Title: The pelican
- Publisher: Van Oorschot
- Year of publication: 2017
- ISBN: 978-94-282-8048-9
‘The Pelican’ is mainly about two men and the ever-changing bond between them; they run just about the whole spectrum between friendship and enmity, in both directions. The first man is Andrej, who was a postman in the eighties in a boring Croatian (at that time still Yugoslavian) town on the Adriatic Sea. There is not much to do and few tourists come. Andrej is a frustrated young man: he just can’t get a wife and he has the feeling that life is passing him by and nobody sees him.
The second protagonist is war veteran Josip, who oversees the funicular railway that leads up from the town to a war memorial on top of a mountain. He is unhappily married and has a mentally disabled daughter, so he always dreads going home and often takes a detour or goes to the cafe. To comfort himself, he starts an affair with Jana, a woman from Zagreb, via a personals ad.
It is this extramarital affair that leads to the first ‘contact’ between Andrej and Josip: Andrej, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, catches Josip and Jana during an amorous get-together on the mountain and secretly takes pictures of it. Then he starts to blackmail Josip with it.
Some time later, Josip accidentally discovers that Andrej regularly steals money from envelopes he is supposed to deliver, after which he in turn starts blackmailing Andrej. This creates a kind of closed circle between the two men, who for a long time do not realize themselves that they are each other’s tormentor.
But that’s just the beginning of all the developments they are going through. In the sequel they get to know each other and a kind of friendship develops between them. In the meantime, the atmosphere in the town is increasingly dominated by the approaching Balkan war. Serbs are less and less welcome and racist texts are becoming commonplace. Josip remains a committed democrat, while Andrej drifts back and forth between his sympathy for Josip and his (not entirely voluntary) contact with an inveterate anti-Semite.
When Josip loses his job due to the many changes that engulf the sleepy town and Andrej takes his place as funicular operator without telling him, the men again become adversaries. Until the war destroys the whole town and wipes it off the map.
But then it turns out that Driessen has another resounding finale in store in which everything is put in a totally different perspective and the reader is left somewhat dizzy.
Driessen writes beautifully, in a restrained humorous style and with a lot of compassion for the endearing struggles of his protagonists. So there is a lot to laugh about. The pelican in the title symbolizes the self-sacrifice that is the hallmark of true love or friendship (it was previously thought that pelicans pecked their breasts to feed their young with their own blood). In the story this refers to the moments when someone suddenly receives support from the very person he least expected it from.
The funicular railway with its intertwined double track with a passing point in the middle is a beautiful symbol: two life paths run parallel, but just when the wagons approach each other the closest they diverge, as if they are suddenly afraid that it will come from real contact. . One person will never be able to fully fathom the other.
In short, ‘The Pelican’ is a smoothly written novel that is cleverly put together, like a well-oiled funicular railway.