For some reason in February I wrote a note to myself in my diary “read Nooteboom”. What prompted me to write this I do not remember. Acting on it, however, in October I ordered two of his novels via the internet, and then, unsurprisingly, read them. Cees Nooteboom is a wonderful Dutch writer who brings a certain northern seriousness to a style of writing that is possibly more playful in the hands of Calvino or Borges. Like them, however, Nooteboom is concerned to present through his fiction a meditation on the nature of fiction.
‘In the Dutch Mountains’ and ‘The Following Story’ are in fact both very short novels that might perhaps be more accurately termed novellas although, in spite of their length, there is nothing lightweight or insubstantial about either of these works. Nooteboom’s stories are constructed on many levels but there is always the strong presence of the narrator, and sometimes even the author himself, being at times both within and without his own narrative as he comments not only on the nature of the narrative but its possible future development. The plot is often disregarded as the narrator or author detours to reflect on the creative purpose of what he is writing.
‘In the Dutch Mountains’ ( a delightfully enigmatic title which in Dutch In der Bergen van Nederland is even more ironic) has a narrator who is a writer, Alfonso Tiburon de Mendoza, who not only tells the story of Kai and Lucia, two circus artists driven to earn their living in the inhospitable mountainous south of the country, but also describes to the reader the mechanics of the writing of the story. The couple is split up when Kai is abducted by the Snow Queen but Lucia searches for him and inevitably, as in all good fairy stories, rescues him from the witch who has beguiled him. Suspense was not Tiburon’s aim in writing the story of Kai and Lucia; more important was his need, as he wrote the story, to comment on writing and story telling, analysing and wondering about what exactly he is doing.
‘The Following Story’ is similarly constructed with the narrator, a writer called Hermann Mussert, musing on his life having woken up suddenly in Lisbon when he had gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam. The room in which he wakes is the very same room in which he had spent a passionate weekend with Maria, who only slept with him to spite her husband who was having an affair with Lisa, the fifteen year old star pupil of Hermann in the school in which all three adults were teachers. Mussert remembers how the love quadrangle was shattered by the death of Lisa in a car crash and, as he remembers, he ponders on the nature of death and memory. Appearance and reality become confused as Mussert is increasingly unsure of what he thought had happened twenty years ago and even less sure that he has learnt anything or become any the wiser in the twenty years since his passionate weekend in Lisbon.
Both these two short novels, each cleverly and wittily constructed, blur the lines between story telling and literary theorising but to the detriment of neither. As Nooteboom or Tiburon himself observes in ‘In the Dutch Mountains’ “novels describe how life is because it can be so” and so his stories are all about the art of the possible. Even if the possible is as implausible as an imaginary conversation between Tiburon, Milan Kundera, Plato and Hans Christian Andersen in which one of the participants observes “conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say”. Such is the fey charm of Nooteboom; he gives with one hand and takes away with the other, so that one is never quite sure of being on solid ground. But so great is the depth of his learning and the breadth of his humour that the novels are, nevertheless, an enchantment for the reader.
Rating 4 out 5