Cees Nooteboom - In the Dutch Mountains
Writing consists of regrouping what has been written before, there are always a hundred writers hidden in your hand even though you may not know it or wish it
Our hero introduces himself on the very first page. That's the sort of man he is – pleasant, polite, and ready to slip back into anonymity as soon as possible.
My name is Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza. I am Inspector of Roads in the province of Zaragoza, part of the ancient kingdom of Aragón, in Spain. In my spare time I write books.
His work takes up a little of his time; for the rest, he writes, he thinks, and he wonders about literature, roads, fairy-tales and that faraway place, the Netherlands. That country is very far from Spain and has, for him, a certain mythical quality about it. What is it like? How different are the people? He assumes very different, and likes to use the Netherlands as the setting for some of his writing because doing so allows him to let his imagination take him where it will.
His philosophy of life and writing is simple, and can be summarised as follows:
There is a similarity between writing stories and building roads: you are bound to arrive somewhere some time.
That's about it, really. Oh, he has a lot more to say about literature and writing, but that's the essence of it. He writes because he enjoys it, and that's enough. His books, when they are published at all, are published by a very small press. His wife and child don't bother to read his works, and he would prefer they were not reviewed in any major newspaper. He is happy to let the famous writers be famous, but that's not for him. He doesn't want the bother.
Cees Nooteboom's Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza is a pleasing and pleasant fellow. He's the sort of man you have as an Uncle, the type of person you have as a colleague remotely known, and if you ask everybody, nobody knows him well, but everyone likes him. He wears, I suspect, a bow-tie, but without irony. His life is unambitious outside the confines of his mind, and what's in there he is happy to keep for himself.
As we have been formed by the conventions of European literary culture, there is little scope an individual writer to exercise his imagination; the terminology has been fixed ever since writing began. Lucia's hair was, of course, golden (Like honyseime, the fat of the honey, as someone in the South was to say later.) She had clear blue eyes like a summer sky, her lips were red as cherries, her teeth white as milk. Anyone trying to think of other words is mad. Culture is a code.
The narrator is engaged with European culture, but he is unwilling to dramatically contribute to it. Instead, he is happy to watch the river run by; it's enough that he can hear the splash of the water and feel the breeze on his face. He doesn't need to dip a toe in.
He writes for most of the time he isn't working. Though his wife and child are mentioned, it is but rarely and not well, and they don't figure much into the story. Instead, Nooteboom allows the narrator to let his thoughts wander where they will (this is, after all, a written piece designed purely for the consumption of the narrator, and not for us).
Where do these thoughts roam? Two primary areas. The first involves the meaning and essence of words, the way they shift and shape depending upon which language is being considered. He's fascinated by this, what it says about the people and culture of the language, how it reflects the national sense of identity. Words are powerful and stretch back very far, and though an individual may not be explicitly capable of defining the origin and true meaning of a word, they are, by virtue of their language, saturated in the essence of its meaning. We can't escape the words we use, and how we use them creates our identity to ourself and to others as much as anything else.
Camino, carretera, way, street, road. It has always intrigued me that in Dutch the word weg, way, also means away, absent. In Spanish el camino is not only the road but also the journey. Now a journey is by definition also the absence from the place you have set out from, but the brutal directness of away is not contained in it. In my profession I have, of course, philosophised often enough about roads in all their meanings, for whether it is via, carretera, camino, path or street, these words are always, in any decent explanatory dictionary, followed by a procession of idiomatic and allegorical expressions that make you think, especially when your life consists, as mine does, of roads and is largely spent on roads.
The second major theme is that of the fairy-tale. As he writes, two characters begin to emerge. They are ill-defined – as they are shaped he continually uses the word 'perfect' for them, because he doesn't know how else to describe them – and ill-defined characters tend to end up in very specific genres of writing. In this case, a fairy-tale. Kia and Lucia are young, beautiful, and involved with the circus, until suddenly they aren't. The narrator has them working in the North of the Netherlands, but they are soon demoted to the South, which we are told is full of criminals, bandits, and other unsavoury types. Why this is the case is never explained – but we must remember that the Netherlands of our narrator is not the Netherlands of our world. It is his Netherlands, created by his imagination and reinforced by the various writings he engages in.
At any rate, Kia and Lucia travel South, and things become progressively worse. 'Things' is, of course, a horrible way to explain anything, but the narrator himself is fairly tenuous in his descriptions of the goings-on of his heroes, at least at first, because he doesn't know much about what he's writing, just that he is. When the two are first introduced they vanish almost straight away as the narrator's pen turns back to literature, writing, and the joy of spending time alone. But they keep returning, almost as if they possess a will of their own, and gradually the novel shifts its primary attention to the two.
In the South Kai is abducted by a strange, cold woman, known the Snow Queen:
She is the Snow Queen, that is what they call her. Without ever being able to put it into words, Kai will see it later: this woman belongs to the same category as Lucia, that of the perfect bodies, but her body is connected with death.
And the two lovers are separated. The narrator relates the (inevitable, obvious) fairy-tale story of Kai's capture and enthralment by this modern-day witch with increasing vigor, and along the way he comments quite extensively about fairy-tales and their inevitability and power within a culture. The story of Kai and Lucia is not quite strong enough to hold up the novel, and so it doesn't – much stronger, more interesting, and with more pages devoted to it, are the musings on literature and the act of writing. When we are with Kai and Luce the narrative tone becomes much hazier in meaning, but also much more physical, with strong descriptions and actions. The characters do things, whereas the story of the narrator-as-writer tends to be mostly ephemeral, and stuck within the narrator's head. Here is Kai, walking while under the spell of the witch:
The voices came nearer and he walked on, out of the building, into the gardens that led to a wood which was still part of the enclosed domain. He had walked there before, but with the snow getting thicker and deeper he could not easily tell where he was going and soon found himself in an area he did not recognise. The snow fell on his clothes and hair, but he scarcely noticed it. A thought was trying to form in his head, but in his brain it was snowing too; the only clear thought was that of a white, icy woman who had driven every other thought out of him. The wood became deeper, more mysterious. Tall spruces stood like frozen watchmen on either side of what must be a path. He was searching for something but did not know what. After a while he saw behind an irregularly shaped hedge of shrubs a low structure adjoining a high wall. He stood in front of it and stretched out his hand to the door.
Nooteboom's narrator is a genial fellow, and one is happy to follow him wherever his thoughts may lead. His literary and intellectual meanderings are much more pleasurable than the story of Kai and Lucia, which becomes increasingly bogged down with its weight as a fairy-tale. The characters of a fairy-tale are never developed beyond their function, and indeed this is true of the couple and in particular the Snow Queen, about whom we know nothing, but that makes for somewhat uninvolved reading. In short, this is a pleasant, thought-provoking (though provoking is too strong a word. Perhaps stirring? Engaging?) work, one that will please the serious scholar of literature as much as the more casual reader. Nooteboom's touch is light, but underneath the breezy air is a great deal of erudition, and a lot of quite introspective thought on the topics of writing, solitude, and the nature of words and language.
||In the Dutch Mountains
(Original Title: In Nederland)
---Amazon (US) ---Amazon (UK)
Other titles by Cees Nooteboom under review include:
---All Souls' Day
---The Following Story