Monday, July 4, 2016

All Souls' DayAll Souls' Day by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The point was that the past could be accessed and therefore still existed. And it would continue to exist until the act of describing the world ceased to exist, together with the world itself."

I am writing this just ten days after Brexit, and it is a difficult time for me because the event has dealt a severe blow to one of the most wonderful ideas in world's political history - the unification of Europe in the form of the EU. That the countries such as Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and many others - despite a thousand years' worth of wars, hate, and killing - have been able to overcome their national prejudices in the interest of people rather than just "our people" was an event on a scale never experienced in human history. Well, now it seems clear that we have just been deluded and that Europe will merrily go back to the old ways of nationalism and division.

What does it all have to do with Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day (1998)? I am sure that Mr. Nooteboom is very sad today too. He is not just a Dutch writer as his nationality and native language indicate, but a quintessential European writer, and this novel is one of the most European of serious books that I have ever read. Among the major themes in All Souls Day are the European history, culture, art, philosophy, ways of thinking, even food. Most of the novel is presented as a stream of thoughts of a highly educated intellectual and as conversations with other intellectuals. Arthur, the narrator, is a free-lance TV documentary director and cameraman, and among his closest friends are a sculptor, a philosopher/writer, and a physicist. We read about the art of Vermeer, Heidegger's Sein zum Tode, Hegel's philosophy of history, Penderecki's Stabat Mater, the gender markings in European languages, the kingdom of León-Castilla under queen Urraca in the early 12th century, the cathedral in Madrid, the tunnel underneath Alcalá, Krzysztof Pomian's essay Histoire et Fiction, and also about Saumagen, Apfelstrudel, and various types of sausages. Arthur's stream of thoughts transcends national identities and languages: his thoughts are not Dutch or German or French, they are thoughts of an European.

In All Souls' Day Mr. Nooteboom returns to the main themes of his most famous novels: the time and space dimensions of human life, human impermanence, the ways in which the past exists, and how we, the living, relate to people who had been close to us and who died. One of the most moving passages describes Arthur's conversation with an old woman living in a block of apartments in Berlin. She is looking at a tree that has always been growing in front of her window. The tree had been small when the woman and her husband had lived there before World War II. The husband was killed on the Eastern front, but the woman, some fifty years later, still talks to him and tells him about the tree:
"I tell him how the tree is doing, how big it's grown. He can't understand the rest, how everything has turned out. I don't dare tell him."
Whenever I read this fragment I choke and my eyes get wet. Indeed, the dead would not understand all the rest. But we do have the obligation to the people who had departed: we need to think about the times we had together. Talking to our dead makes them exist again, just a little.

There is so much more in the novel. Arthur's narration is interrupted a few times by a voice that resembles the chorus from a classic Greek drama. Sometimes this collective disembodied voice (all souls' voice?) comments on the events, but mainly it provides a wider perspective on the themes and motifs in the text. For instance - in keeping with the meditative mood of the novel - the voice muses on the power of human intellect that "can ponder eternity" and "allows you to lay claim to vast amounts of time and space," on the random intersections of human trajectories in space and time, and on the non-existence of the future. One will also find a most unusual description - in its understatement - of a person's death.

Readers should be aware that All Souls' Day may only barely be counted as a novel. The plot is thin: Arthur, who lost his wife and son ten years ago in a plane accident, spends time in Berlin, waiting for his next assignment, wandering all over the city, sitting with his friends in cafés and Weinstubes and discussing art and philosophy. He meets a young woman, Elik Oranje, a graduate history student and a complicated yet instant attraction arises between them. The story continues about the time they spend together in Berlin and then about Arthur's search for Elik in Spain, where she goes to look for source materials to her dissertation.

Despite many utterly beautiful passages and themes All Souls' Day feels a little bit overlong. unfocused and occasionally rambling; it does not reach the greatness of, for example, The Following Story or The Foxes Come at Night , which are meditations of unsurpassed depth on the existence of past and our impermanence. But it still is a wonderful book and it makes it crystal clear that the writings of no other author I have ever read resonate stronger with my worldview and sensibilities.

Four and a quarter stars.

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