Rituals by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"They lay still for a time. In accordance with the rules, Inni was sad. As he let the embrace with the bigger Lyda seep away into his memory gap, he felt, as usual, bitter at what was bound to happen next. They would disentangle themselves, maybe wash, he would descend the long staircase like someone descending a staircase, she would fall asleep in her own nest, tomorrow she would drink crème de menthe again, with idiots, and they would die, each one separately, in different hospital beds, ill treated by young nurses who were not yet born"
Having read 99 books so far this year I decided a special item for the "hecto" number is needed. The Following Story , a quietly beautiful meditation on love and human transience, has been my best book (so far) of 2015, so why not "Rituals" (1980), another novel by Cees Nooteboom?
Well, first of all, it is not an easy book to read: I needed almost 10 hours for the mere 144 pages, and my otherwise debilitating insomnia came handy here. Not only did I have to tightly focus my attention to follow the rather complex structure, but also, more importantly, I kept re-reading and re-reading, savoring the cleverness and beauty of many dazzling passages of prose: I could not afford to miss a single word or phrase.
It is not a book one reads for the plot: there is not much of a story in "Rituals". The novel is composed of three episodes that take place at crucial moments in the life of Inni Wintrop, a financially independent Dutch dilettante who dabbles in stock market and art collecting. His wife, with whom he is extremely close - but only in the physical sense - leaves him in 1963, and Inni decides to commit suicide. The second episode takes place ten years earlier, when he meets his aunt and, through her, a Mr. Arnold Taads, a recluse and misanthrope, so disgusted with life that he eventually kills himself. Finally, it is 1973 and Inni meets a Mr. Philip Taads, Arnold's son, who also ends up committing suicide.
From the shallow summary it may seem this extraordinary novel is about suicide, which is not true. The human emptiness of being is the focus: people who have not found love in their life fail to make sense of their existence. While Inni has frequent sexual contacts with many women, he is not in any real way close to them. Arnold Taads rejected his son, who, in turn, has isolated himself from the world in his dark mysticism. Inni and the Taadses are three utterly lonely people who attempt to construct the sense of their being on this Earth by immersing themselves in rituals. For Inni these were the Catholic faith rituals in his youth. Arnold "divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day." Philip had the Japanese ceremonial of drinking tea to justify his existence.
"Rituals" is an extremely serious novel, and I am using the word 'serious' quite seriously. Yet even with the exceptional writing it still feels opaque, impenetrable, mysterious. Perhaps the feeling that the reader is almost there to understand is the key? After all, what would be left for us in life if we did understand?
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