Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Song of Truth and SemblanceA Song of Truth and Semblance by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] her voice, always surrounded by air, so that everything she said came in separate, veiled parcels of breath, which gave the impression that what she said was not true, or that it was not true that she said anything, or, he thought later, the manner in which she spoke made you think she was talking to someone who was not there."

My tenth book by Cees Nooteboom, A Song of Truth and Semblance (1981) is also the first one that I am not exactly enthusiastic about. To put it in perspective, though: it just does not meet my sky-high expectations of the author, raised by masterpieces such as The Following Story . Had this been a work of an "ordinary" writer, I would have likely rated it higher than with two-and-a-half stars.

This short novella - a wonderfully slim volume of about 80 pages - is yet another exercise in metafiction. Two threads are intertwined: one is happening in Amsterdam in 1979 and introduces The Writer and The Other Writer (the capitalization is mine). They discuss the craft of writing in general: The Other Writer represents a down-to-earth, one could say commercial approach to the literary craft while The Writer is rather meditative in his literary exploits. They also discuss the story that The Writer is working on, the story that constitutes the second thread, set exactly 100 years earlier in Bulgaria and Italy, at the time of the Treaty of San Stefano. It features the Colonel, the Doctor, and his newly married wife, with whom the Colonel falls head over heels in love. The two threads, already referentially connected by one being about the other, become additionally linked in a different way at one point of the time-space continuum: in 1979 at "the elegant revolving door of the Grand Hotel de Russie", close to Via del Corso in Rome. But there is even more to the linkage: yet another neat story-versus-story twist awaits the reader.

Mr. Nooteboom teases the reader with metafictional conundrums again and again. The Writer returns to work on his story after a four-month break. The last three words he had written before the break were "Then I see ..." and he now wonders, "Then I see what?" He now knows that he would never know. And that the reader would never know that the writer did not know. The other referentiality quandary is even more playful: when a writer writes a story about his writing a story, do the stories differ as to their level of realism? Or - to state it differently - what would the writer have to do to make the stories differ as to the degree of realism? The ending twist in A Song teases the reader along these lines.

Other than the usual metafictional theme of the relationship between the author and the characters and worlds they create the novella features another common Nooteboom's motif: the intersections of people's trajectories in time and space. On the other hand, this is my first book by the author where the subject of death is conspicuously missing. Also the Stun Latency Coefficient - how many pages does it take for me to get stunned by the beauty or expressive power of the author's prose - is very high: I had to wait almost half of the book, until page 36, to find the first extraordinary fragment of prose, quoted in the epigraph.

And before I slam the novella with a not-recommended sort of rating, let me quote one hilarious phrase:
"Mourning was definitely not what he felt at the funeral of his colleague. Dutch writers cannot as a rule do much for each other, but they do bury each other very well [...]"
Two and a half stars.

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