In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Cees Nooteboom's "In the Dutch Mountains" (1984), a metafictional take on Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen fairy tale, the story is written by Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza, an Inspector of Roads from Zaragoza, Spain. Not only does he write the story, but more importantly, he also writes about writing the story. To him writing a story is like building a road: "you are bound to arrive somewhere some time."
Once upon a time the Netherlands were a much larger country than they are now. They consisted not only of the flat, civilized North but also the mountainous South, less organized, rougher but freer. The story - let's switch to the literary present tense - is about Kai and Lucia who are perfect and perfectly beautiful - they are so perfect that that the perfection of one enhances the perfection of the other, and they love each other infinitely. They work as circus illusionists, and when they go to the South in pursuit of a job, Kai is abducted by henchmen of the Snow Queen who resides there. Lucia sets about finding him, and the story sets about getting to its natural outcome.
Tiburón talks to the reader about the story, thus creating a metastory and telling the story itself becomes the story. Tiburón also ruminates about the nature of fairy tales and compares myths, stories, and fairy tales. He explains that a fairy tale is "an intensified form of a story, while a story is [...] an intensified form of reality." Whereas a novel compresses reality, a fairy tale compresses it to the extent "that animals can be heard to speak." Remarkable!
If it all sounds as if "In the Dutch Mountains" were just a literary study, something like a modern version of Vladimir Propp's "Morphology of a Fairy Tale", it is because I have no ability to convey the poetry of the story ("Philosophers are failed poets," Tiburón says; well, I am a failed philosopher.) Rarely do I agree with cover blurbs but the one by Julian Barnes is spot on: "A poet's fairy tale, elegant and beguiling." Yes, yes, and yes, and well written too. Yet the whole package feels a little cold to me - like the Snow Queen.
To end on a positive note, I love the epigraph at the end of the book, taken from a wonderful poem by Wallace Stevens. The quote begins with the memorable verse "Let be be finale of seem." No, no typo here, and it is so fitting!
Three and a half stars.
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