A masterful ode to the capriciousness of rivers
In the three novellas that make up this book, the main role is assigned to the flowing water of the river. Here the river is the last refuge for a stranded life, an opening onto new worlds, or the distributor of worldly goods, love and power. In all three, Driessen demonstrates his great narrative talent.
An aging actor, spurred on by his wife and his agent, travels to Sainte-Menehould in north-east France, where he gets into a canoe borrowed from his son. He has been drinking too much, to the disgruntlement of his family, ‘If you have to drink, then at least do it where you’re not going to bother anyone.’ He knows he’s an aggressive drunk, but he can’t control his craving. He lost a role in Don Carlos after hitting the director’s assistant when she made a critical remark. He is now faced with a choice between renouncing alcohol and losing his wife, son and job. The two bottles of merlot and one of whisky in his rucksack will be the last he ever drinks, he tells himself. The Aisne is high after heavy rains. Canoeing is not without its dangers. Amid references to Lohengrin and Hamlet, Driessen has his drunken actor launch himself towards a violent end.
In the second novella, the river carries great rafts made of tree trunks, the centuries-old method of transporting timber to villages and towns downstream. The river connects the lives of Konrad, son of a labourer, and Julius, son of the forester. Both dream of a world elsewhere along the river. Hardworking Konrad cares only about work on the waterway. He controls the rafts to perfection. Julius is more ambitious; a raft is not enough for him. In his restlessness he is lonely, all the more so because he is attracted to men. Konrad is bound to Julius by fate and by comradeship, but he’s too much the ascetic to be more than a friend to him. In the story, which spans decades, they travel further and further down the river. Their world grows bigger without ever extending beyond the world of the raft.
In the third part, Pierre and Adèle, the water is capricious. The river that divides the land owned by the Chrétien family (Catholic) from that of the Corbé family (Huguenot) keeps carving out a new channel whenever its level rises. Each change in its course alters the size and shape of the families’ properties. The riverbed determines whose land it is, which leads to a lengthy, exhausting feud. Lawyer Eduard Salomon, who has taken over the business from his father, can think up whatever he likes – the two families continue to confront each other, daggers drawn. In a grand, dynamic ending, Driessen turns the status quo upside down.