Accidental icon

By BEN NAPARSTEK
October 3, 2007 20:43

Famous as a travel writer, Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is now best known for his fiction.




Accidental icon

cees 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

After almost six decades of traveling, Cees Nooteboom is used to fielding questions about the psychological origins of his wanderlust. When asked if he's trying to outrun personal demons by continually being on the move, the Dutch writer replies that he has always, in fact, been at home - with himself. His 2006 book Nomad's Hotel, which drew together 35 years of travel essays, opened with a quotation from an ancient Arabic sage: "The origin of existence is movement. Immobility can have no part in it." Speaking from his summer home on the Spanish island of Minorca, Nooteboom, 74, seems bemused that his nomadic lifestyle might suggest restlessness: "I'm not restless; I've now been for over two months in the one place!" Travel affords him the quiet necessary to write. "When you're on your own, in different hotels, you have more time to think than when you're surrounded by friends." Nooteboom didn't have a telephone in Minorca for most of the four decades that he's spent his summers there. Instead he told people that they could reach him between 9:30 p.m. and midnight on Sundays at a local Chinese restaurant. Being a Sunday night, that excluded work calls. Now, as an internationally celebrated writer often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, Nooteboom cannot so easily avoid the demands of publishers, journalists and translators. Although best known in Anglophone countries for his fiction, Nooteboom was famous in Holland for the first half of his career predominately as a travel writer. He explains that in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of travel writing, travel is generally conceived of as an adventure, and the traveler has a goal - such as crossing from the mouth to the source of a river - that guides the journey. By contrast, Nooteboom describes his non-fiction as "literary travel writing" - filled with references to philosophy, history and theology - and he never has an objective in mind when he travels: "I just parachute myself into a given place and start looking around." His childhood made him accustomed to moving places. When the curators of a literary museum in Nooteboom's native city, The Hague, mounted an exhibition of his life and work, they presented him with a list of eight addresses where his family lived before the war. Nooteboom was stunned. "I went to my mother, and I said, 'Did we move house eight times in these years?' And she said, 'No, of course not.' I said, 'Here's a list.' Then she had to admit it was true." He has few childhood memories. "I don't have memories of a first school day, or first schools, or friends, or teachers. I think the reason for that was our continual moving." His father was killed in an air bombardment near the end of the war, when the British, thinking that they were targeting the Germans, killed Dutch civilians instead. The loss made Nooteboom precociously independent. "It's very interesting as a child - suddenly you strangely enough feel important because people all tell you, 'Oh, your father died.'" After Nooteboom's mother remarried a strict Catholic, he spent his adolescence in Catholic boarding schools. "Since my parents had divorced, I could not marry within the Catholic Church. I was not like the other children, completely immersed in Catholicism, so it left me without traumas." Rather than going to university, he found work as a bank clerk - an experience that made him determined never again to work for a boss. For intellectual stimulation, he wrote the first chapter of his debut novel, Philip and the Others (1955), which a publisher paid him a handsome advance to complete. He never intended to be a writer. "I had written that book in absolute innocence, like water comes up in a well. Then you are a writer because everybody tells you so." The novel was a coming-of-age story - "a sort of On the Road before On the Road" - based on the teenage Nooteboom's hitchhiking adventures through Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and Italy. Although it was well received, at 21 Nooteboom thought that he needed more life experience before writing further novels. So he traveled to Suriname and French and British Guyana, earning his passage by doing odd jobs on the ship. His next novel, The Knight Has Died (1963), was a Borgesian tale about a novelist living on an island off Spain who commits suicide and leaves behind a novel about a writer who suicides. "I used him in order not to have to do it myself." It was then 17 years before he wrote his third novel, Rituals (1980) - an absurdist comedy about one man unfailingly governed by rules, and an impulsive man who, by contrast, has no self-regulation. In the intervening years, Nooteboom wrote 10 travel books, of which only Roads to Santiago (1992), about his travels in Spain, has passed into English. After Rituals, which won the prestigious Pegasus Prize for Literature, Nooteboom's fears about writing fiction disappeared. He has since produced seven philosophical, fable-like novels, which rarely extend far beyond 100 pages. Nooteboom's reputation as one of Europe's leading fiction writers was clinched when his 1991 novella The Following Story was commissioned by the jury of Holland's yearly Book Week, where each year a short book is published that all participating bookstores give for free with any significant purchase. Thus The Following Story, in which a classics teacher goes to sleep in Amsterdam and wakes up confused in Lisbon, had an initial Dutch print-run of 540,000, despite a population of just 16 million. NOOTEBOOM REMEMBERS as a young writer telling the author Mary McCarthy, his friend and mentor, about a new 600-page Dutch novel. She replied, "Cees, you stay small." Aside from his 400-page novel All Souls Day, Nooteboom has kept faith with her advice. "I've always kept in mind that Mary felt that that would be more my thing." McCarthy introduced Nooteboom to literary luminaries, such as Cyril Connolly and Robert Lowell, passing through Paris, where she lived with her diplomat husband. "It was like a moving academy for me. There was so much to learn. Mary had a very severe intellectual rigor, and with me being young and more flippant, it was a very good education." There's nothing flippant about Nooteboom's tightly woven novels - intellectual puzzles which often meditate on the process of literary creation. In A Song of Truth of Semblance (1981), an author struggles to write an original novel about the age-old theme of adultery. In the Dutch Mountains (1987), he presents an author writing a novel in a mythical Holland which incorporates the Balkans. The prologue to Nooteboom's new novel, Lost Paradise, finds the author traveling on a plane to a conference in Berlin, when he sees a woman reading his book, Lost Paradise. In the epilogue, on a plane leaving Berlin for Moscow, he thinks he sees the same woman reading his novel, but on closer inspection realizes that she's reading Milton's Paradise Lost. "It's a sort of joke, the kind of thing I like to play," says Nooteboom. The first half of Lost Paradise is narrated by Alma, a young Brazilian art historian who travels to Australia seeking regeneration after being brutally raped. Harboring an idealized vision of Australia and its indigenous inhabitants, Alma throws herself into an affair with an Aboriginal artist. "My Australia was a fiction, an escape," she says. Elsewhere she waxes lyrical about "the people who had lived there forever and looked as if they had sprung from the land itself: scorched, sun-seared beings who trod softly over the earth and lived as if time didn't exist." Alma ends up in Perth employed as an actor in the so-called Angel Project, based on the real initiative of the Perth Arts Festival in 2000. Participants were instructed to search for performers dressed as angels hiding throughout the city. Nooteboom, then a guest at the connected Perth Writers Festival, was enchanted by the idea. "It was a game which you had to play on your own. You were given an itinerary and you just went ahead all by yourself to offices and dilapidated houses and churches and you found those angels of all kinds of sex, class, age and color." It is dressed as an angel, hiding inside a cupboard, that Alma first encounters Erik Zontag, a visiting Dutch author and the protagonist of the second half of Lost Paradise. Nooteboom is anxious about how Australians will respond to Lost Paradise, having discovered the low opinion many hold of Bruce Chatwin's romantic 1987 account of Aboriginal Australia, The Songlines. "Australians told me that Chatwin didn't understand anything, so I thought, 'What will they be saying about me?' Chatwin was deeper into it than I ever could be." Zontag observes that "Australian writers were separated by blissfully vast distances, which must cut down on the jealousy, inbreeding and backbiting." Nooteboom says he imagines that in Australia the distances between cities would stop writers from knowing each other intimately like in Holland, "where you come across everybody all the time, unless somebody hides or lives abroad, which I do." Holland's leading writer. Harry Mulisch, 80, has been friends with Nooteboom for more than 50 years, and comments: "Often he's everywhere but here, but when he's here we still meet. He's wonderful at imitating people. He can be very funny. He's an intellectual, a real intellectual." His travelogues rarely have a political focus, but Nomad's Hotel contains a prescient essay based on his travels in Iran shortly before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Writing before "fundamentalist" became the word for an Islamic purist, Nooteboom recounted being spat at in the face by a group of mullahs. "That was the time that we in the West thought that there would be a revolution in Iran but that it would come from the intellectuals - writers, filmmakers, students. But I felt that what would happen there would be a groundswell of purist Muslims, which happened." Nooteboom sees the rise of religious intolerance in Holland, which led to the murder of the provocateur journalist Theo van Gogh in 2004, as a reaction to the breakdown of authority in its Muslim communities. "If I see a Moroccan Muslim man in a pharmacy with a daughter of six who speaks Dutch and has to translate, he's already losing his authority. Paternal authority is breaking down but nothing has come in its place, because most of the kids are falling between two chairs." But he remains confident that Dutch society will withstand its trials. "Holland has had a way of living with foreigners for over 500 years, and this is not going to be changed in a few years." Nooteboom watched Spain overcome fascism and prosper in the face of terrorist threats. "Spain became a very moderate country very quickly after Franco's death. They're modernizing very quickly. So it's no longer the same country that I've been traveling to since 1954. Spain was then really backward. The unspoiled landscapes and the enormous space appealed to me, coming from a green, fertile, overpopulated and densely built small country; lost paradise."


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