A surprising tragicomedy about two men who keep each other in a stranglehold
Former opera and theatre director Martin Michael Driessen’s sixth book is a comedy of errors about two men inescapably connected by a web of blackmail. As in his prize-winning story collection Rivers, Driessen is a master of inspiring empathy for individuals who take their fate into their own hands, usually with tragic consequences.
In Communist Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, pelicans and a clock museum are the closest things to local attractions in a sleepy town on the Adriatic coast. The two leading characters are Josip, the driver of the funicular, who has a disabled daughter and a deranged, nagging wife, and Andrej, an unmarried postman and nature photographer. On a walk in the mountains, Andrej sees Josip making love to his mistress. Andrej takes photographs and begins to blackmail Josip.
The financial arrangements and Josip’s misguided suspicions about his blackmailer’s identity lead to entertaining complications. But then Andrej is hurt in a traffic accident and Josip comes to his aid. Josip discovers envelopes in Andrej’s house that have been steamed open and realizes that the postman has stolen posted money.
Josip then uses this information to blackmail Andrej. Neither one has any idea who his tormentor could be; in fact, the two of them become friends. This personal drama with unexpected plot twists takes place against the background of the impending Balkan war, which drives apart the village’s ethnic groups. The two men’s mutual stranglehold is a metaphor for the fault lines in the former Yugoslavia, where friends became enemies from one day to the next.
No one in The Pelican is wholly good or evil. The characters’ backgrounds and motives are described in an intimate style that enables readers to empathize with all of them: ‘You always had expectations of other people, good or bad, and it was confusing when they did the opposite.’ With skilful irony, Driessen gives malice and misunderstanding a human face.