A playful but lucid treatise on the art of survival
Yves Petry studied mathematics and philosophy and this might be why his characters challenge received ideas and common values. They seem to delight in pointing out the false or superfluous aspects of phenomena such as identity, religion, love, sexuality, and ambition. Petry’s latest novel, De achterblijver (The Straggler), surpasses his three previous novels in composition, style and maturity.
Gram, an enthusiastic young member of staff at the Carnitec technology company, is about to attend a colloquium in Austin, Texas, where he will speak about the future prospects of the project he is engaged in. Unfortunately, he is not fully focussed on the task at hand because his eccentric father has just passed away. This was a man who, in the period just before his death, had become obsessed first with sexual activities and then with culinary ones. To Gram’s great relief, he has died as a result of syphilis, a physical rather than a psychological illness.
Gram does not appreciate subjective impressions of the world, he is a devotee of cool intelligence. He prefers to see humans as advanced machines and finds it ludicrous that his mother has found new love with a lout who enjoys wearing women’s clothes. At the exaggeratedly sober and emotionless funeral, conflicts of principles and of a personal nature inevitably result.
In conjunction with his mentor in the company, Gram is working on a robot, Baby, which uploads human intelligence by means of brain scans, omitting the emotional ballast. In time, it will become more intelligent than man, reducing ‘humanity to a self-help group of stragglers’. To Gram’s great dismay, it is not his mentor who accompanies him to Austin but his direct rival in the company, Valeria Bitschkowa – what’s in a name? During the flight, Gram intends to focus his thoughts on the future, but he finds himself continually preoccupied with his past. He also becomes increasingly edgy as a consequence of the tension between him and Valeria, and when the plane lands, he collapses, a victim of what he has always denied: emotions.
Yves Petry’s main character is a harsh, isolated, pumped up misanthropist who looks down disparagingly on what makes humans human – sentiment, sexuality – and on their (in his view) limited intelligence, as articulated in spirituality or psychology. Nevertheless, in his classical style, Petry softens Gram’s sarcasm and cynicism with amusing irony.