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Witty novel about impossibilities
This is an unforgettable story whose author sustains a precarious balance between cheerful nonsense and high seriousness. The setting is Groningen, a city in the far north of the Netherlands, a buzzing centre of life amid endless flat meadows. The 500-year-old Martini Tower serves as an urban landmark and the people are sober, their dour character proverbial. Groningen, where Valens lived for many years, is conceived as a form of isolation, of being cut off.
Isebrand Schut is the central figure in the book. A former biology student, now out of work and suffering from a series of odd social phobias, has difficulty greeting people on the street and is afraid to open the post. He sets up a self-help group for fellow sufferers called Man&Post, bringing a mixed batch of letter-phobics together twice a month. Among them is the enigmatic Cor Meckering, who has a fascination for the prefix ‘dis’. Having no specific meaning of its own, it occurs in words such as disclaim, disprove and discontinue. He wants to write a book about it: The Book of Dis. Isebrand offers to help.
It turns out to be an impossible task, but that is precisely the focus of Valens novel: impossibilities, things that cannot be yet somehow are. Later Isebrand does find a job, as a lavatory attendant in the metro station. Groningen has no metro. Another illustration of the theme of impossibility is a remark by Meckering: ‘The only argument for the existence of the Martini Tower is that it’s there, but believe me, that’s the only one.’
Man&Post is witty, intelligent and evocative, and so convincingly written that afterwards you begin to wonder whether all those impossibilities might be real-world facts after all. It takes a couple of mouse clicks to reassure yourself that Groningen does not have a metro. Valens’ talent is to make his readers believe the impossible. An overwhelming achievement.