One of the remarkable things about passionate love is that it exhibits a desire for purity and exclusivity, that somehow distinguishes it from friendship as well as sex, though both things are ideally united in this type of love. There also is a kind of magic in it, the feeling of being singled out as unique and irreplacable that makes one more alive and awakens all of our faculties, mental as well as physical. As if one feels more real and transported to another world all together.
Two opposite images in the book characterize passionate love: pelicans and mud. While pelicans exemplify the purity of love, mud symbolizes its healthy, physical side. Both are in danger of commercialisation. Think of Valentine day and prostitution. In the book, the Roma kill the birds (unwillingly), while the mayor toys with an entrance fee for the natural brine pools and the mud.
Frequently however, passionate love steers an unhappy course. Though it embarks with highly elevated feelings of uniqueness, on top of it come loads of responsibilities (kids, house, job) as well as the slack of a long time spent together, that both undermine its initial freshness. (That’s what happened to Lena and Ivan, the parents of Martin, the couple that broke up, fast forward through a school friend of Lena -Monica).
Let’s focus on Martin now. Martin is not so much a victim of the separation of his parents, as a smart kid that learns from the events surrounding him, and absorbs some interesting streaks of adults. The complexity of his young ‘love live’ (Alex or Silvia?) mimicks that of his father and makes him more empathic with the situation – though, of course, it shaked his young life thoroughly.
But adults serve as his example too. Most notably of course, his uncle the writer. At two passages in the book – nonsurprisingly ‘At the lake’ (where he sees the pelicans) and ‘The mud protest’; the twin central symbols of the book – Martin is trying his young hand at writing.
Enter the Pelican Feather: not only a symbol for the purity of love, but also for the purity of writing. By its very nature, writing is a very earnest, intense and absorbing activity whereby the writer strives to touch and as such awaken the reader to reality. The Pelican Feather is the perfect gift of Martin to Silvia at the end of the book, as it concurrently expresses the purity of his love to her ánd his aspirations as a writer.
But still, Martin meets Silvia in the mud. The fact that both pelicans and mud play a role in their youthful relationship turns it into a kind of microcosm for grownup reality.
Another crucial strand in the book is empathy. In the many chapters in italics, the writer crouches into the skin of one of the characters, making the unfolding of events – that one might initially disapprove of – acceptable, and the reader sympathising with the point of view of everyone, not only that of the ‘victims’ Martin and Lena.
I turn to Uncle Stefan now. He might be the most important character in Martin’s live (more important than his sweathearts Alex and Silvia, that will probably come and go in his live) but he’s rarely present in the book. His own chapter in italics is not really part of the unfolding story but rather contains some general reflections on love and writing, and expresses his belief in Martin as a promising writer. Almost by definition, writers operate behind the scènes, pulling the strings of the story. They are present, yes, but not directly. Just like Irina Papancheva will be there between the lines of Pelican Feather, for people who know her.
But not only the reader empathizes with the various standpoints. So do, in a subtle way, the characters themselves. Their – implicit – understanding of the people around them softens their own judgment and serves as a kind of catharsis to them. Like actors in a play, they bow to the public and shake hands at the end of the play. They fly above themselves, like pelicans.
And then, there’s Martins close-to-drowning, the most tangible event in the book that unites the various characters and makes them realise what’s all-important to all of them. From the intrigues of passionate love, to love … It’s no decline, on the contrary.
I loved reading the book. It taught me many things about something I rarely thought about until now – passionate love – but whose importance in ordinary live no-one can deny.
by Aldo De Martelaere, Small Whales