Triumph in failure
Inspired by the myth of Icarus, Pieter Toussaint has written a fascinating novel about the triumph that is sometimes contained within defeat. Ytze, the narrator of De vliegfiets (‘The Flying Bicycle’) looks back on his youth, shared with his older brother Vincent and devoted to the miracles of technology. The inspiration for their inventions came from their grandfather who, although he died young, left behind a folder filled with blueprints for inventions that were years ahead of their time. However, the brothers were unable to distinguish between semblance and reality, and Vincent dramatically paid for this with his life when their efforts to get a flying bike off the ground failed.
At first it is as if the author is only using the Icarus myth to warn his readers that Man was not meant to fly. But Toussaint is actually more interested in another angle. He has come to the conclusion that success stories are all the same, and that it is in failure that Man is most vulnerable and most fascinating. From the moment that Ytze realizes that he is doomed to bear the burden of human impotence, he resolves to embrace it and turn it into his specialization. Toussaint has a wry sense of humour: when Ytze decides to specialize in Technical Informatics, he chooses as his supervisor a professor who has made technological failures the spearhead of all his research work. The name of the professor is Bavinck, a reference to Nescio’s Bavinck, a classic personage in Dutch literature, who tried in vain to paint the sun.
Then Toussaint sends his protagonist, during his post-doctoral studies, back to the village where his grandfather was born, where he learns that those who are ahead of their time are prone to bouts of desperation. Technology, like religion, proves incapable of making Man happy or of warding off catastrophe.
The only way that a human being can counterbalance his own failures - and those of others - is by giving himself over to love. One of the most satisfying aspects of this deft novel is that in this respect, the author sees to it that his anti-hero is not left out in the cold.