Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Following StoryThe Following Story by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"We will feel the draft blowing through the cracks in the structure of causality"

Is there such a thing as an impossibly beautiful book? Probably not, but Cees Nooteboom's "The Following Story" comes awfully close. So close that when I had finished reading the novella, I immediately read it again. It might not resonate with everybody, though: past a certain age, one subject tends to preoccupy one's mind, and Mr. Nooteboom writes, beautifully, about that subject. So while a younger reader will be likely to ask "What is that all about?", those of us who are almost there, will know.

This short novella has two distinct parts: In "One" Herman Mussert, a teacher of Latin and an author of cheap travel guides, tells us how having gone to sleep in Amsterdam, he wakes up in a room in Lisbon, the same room where he had made love to a woman many, many years ago. We do not know which "he" he is, though: the "he of then" or the "he of now"? The structure of causality is drafty indeed. What is "now", by the way? Where is it where it is not here any more? And what is "I"? Am I the same I as 20 years ago?

In the dreamlike and hypnotic "Two" Mr. Mussert is on a ship traveling across the ocean, into the mouth of the Amazon river, close to the city of Belém on the Brazilian coast, and then up and up the river, past Manaus and the Rio Negro junction, surrounded by the nocturnal jungle. The ship passengers take turns to tell stories of their lives and then they quietly disappear, one by one, never to be seen again. Mr. Mussert is waiting for his turn.

The two parts, so remarkably different, need each other: the second would not make its tremendous impact without the first; the first without the second would just be a philosophical discourse on causality and passage of time. What makes this book so powerful is that its ostensibly main theme - our impermanence - is not the dominating one; "The Following Story" is also about love in its multitude of forms: love for beauty, as in poetry of Ovid, love for a student who shares the teacher's zeal in the quest for truth and knowledge, love for Socrates' courage of convictions, and - of course - Mr. Mussert's love for Mrs. Zeinstra.

The translation is extraordinary; I do not believe the prose of the original could be any more luminous and delightful. The one problem with "The Following Story" is that after reading it most other books will seem like empty tales "told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Five stars.

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