Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and SpaceNomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Time differences are the prerogative of the living, at least they are when it concerns the past."

Having read several novels by Cees Nooteboom - and having fallen in love with some of them, particularly with the sublimely beautiful The Following Story - I have finally read one of his non-fiction writings, Nomad's Hotel, a great collection of travel pieces. While the notion of travel usually involves moving in space, Mr. Nooteboom emphasizes the temporal dimension of travel. The set is subtitled Travels in Time and Space, and it is not an accident that the time dimension is listed before the spatial one as in many stories in the collection the author focuses on traveling with us through the past of a given location.

One of the pieces I love the most is Forever Venice. Mr. Nooteboom uses the 1906 Baedeker to navigate this city some 80 years later. He stands in the place where Petrarch and Boccaccio used to stand, trying to see what they were seeing over six hundred years ago, in this unique city that has now entered the second millennium of its existence. He visits the island of San Michele, the burial place of famous artists, and writes about the stunning fragment of Alejo Carpentier's Concierto Barrocco, where the early eighteenth-century masters, Handel and Vivaldi, visit Igor Stravinsky's grave.

In another wonderful piece Mr. Nooteboom describes his 1975 stay in the Gambia, an African country named after its main river. Attempting to interview the Gambian president, he gets arrested for "failing to dismount from [his] bicycle briskly enough when Sir Dawda Jawara passed by". He also sails up the Gambia river on a riverboat called Lady Wright; the description of the trip is totally hilarious. Consider this portrayal of an English lady: "She is sturdy, enveloped in a flowery frock, and with a sort of face that can move mountains. English dog breeders have often striven to reproduce such faces, but they still look better on people."

The piece titled That Earlier War: the Memorial in Canberra brings other emotions: sadness and deep anger at the barbarity of human species. Mr. Nooteboom writes about the Australian soldiers who perished in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign; rarely can one read such a ferocious and powerful condemnation of the politicians and generals who - on a whim - send young men to die. When one person's senseless death is a tragedy, what about deaths of 7,500 young men, simple pawns is the human slaughter chess game played by Churchill and others, comfortably seated in their London clubs, sipping brandy and smoking cigars? Mr. Nooteboom saves a profound reflection for the end: "There are lots of children at the memorial. I notice how the girls have a different way of looking from the boys." For the girls it is not the adventure, he notices; it rather "has to do with destruction." This reinforces my proudly sexist belief that women should be politicians and military leaders, while men should keep playing with plastic guns and other toys.

As usual, I am experiencing another failure in trying to be concise in my reviews, so very briefly: in An Evening in Isfahan Mr. Nooteboom guides us through the 3000-year history of Persia, in other pieces he writes about his journeys to Munich, the Aran Islands, to the "edge of Sahara", Mantua, Zurich, and Mali. In all stories, he is a traveler who "is searching for the extraordinary within the everyday environment of others", in addition to moving through time and space. A great read!

Four stars.

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