My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"'I am in love with you,' he says again, more in general this time, i a o i u , no i a i o i u!"
The Knight Has Died (1963) is an early book by my beloved writer, Cees Nooteboom. Some sources - for instance, Amazon and Publishers Weekly - incorrectly give 1982 as the year that the book was published in the Netherlands. Also, they classify this work - perhaps for business reasons (sales) - as a novel while based on the usual criteria of volume it should be considered a novella.
The setup promises an exercise in recursive metafiction. The narrator's friend, André Steenkamp, is a writer who - to continue in the author's own words - "starts on a book about a writer who writes about a writer who dies, and he himself dies before he has completed the book about the dead writer." Obviously André dies before making substantial progress with the book, so that the narrator has to use the loose notes and drafts to write a book about André trying to write a book:
And so I sit here, with eternally receding writers, mine and his, who die with other writers at their heels who then complete their works, but who die, etcetera.However, the recursive setup is not explored at all in the novella, and perhaps wisely so; after all, it might seem a contrivance. Instead, the narrator tries to reconstruct the last period of André's life - the time when he was trying to work on the book - and follows his tracks on an island off the coast of Spain. There he meets an Englishman who introduces him to a colorful group of expatriates, Germans, Americans, Swiss, who wander from one bar to another and observe the local and tourist events - the Fiesta of the Army, pilgrims praying in a church, the funeral procession for a local deceased, and events at the caves where virgins had once been sacrificed to Astarte. On "the longest day of his life" the narrator meets a mysterious woman, Clara, and they engage in a brief and enigmatic relationship. André dies, of course - in the novella's past - but it is the death of another character, in the novella's present, that becomes an important aspect of the denouement.
From the summary it may appear that there is a plot in the traditional sense, which is not really true: the faint story is just a pretext to show something much more important. The novella is a landscape of moods, imbued with sadness, poignancy, and premonition, captured with beautiful prose. Two words come to mind when trying to characterize the book: "slight" and "fleeting". To me, reading the novella felt a bit like that elusive sensation that we occasionally experience: when thinking intensely about some topic one suddenly feels about to understand something very important - without quite knowing what - and when one is just on the verge of grasping the truth, the feeling is promptly gone - so slight and so fleeting a feeling, as if it has never existed. In the author's words, "the moment is irrecoverable and therefore also the emotion."
In many ways the novella reminds me of two great films from the past: Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), with its dreamlike quality and non-linear entanglement of time and space, but instead of the film's crystalline coldness The Knight offers human emotion. The other movie is Luis Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), with its focus on a group of high-living friends, wandering aimlessly in the French landscape, but instead of Buñuel's surreal humor Mr. Nooteboom infuses The Knight with poetry of human feelings.
Of course, the novella being a Nooteboom's work, death is one of the central motifs. The reader will also find the author's first attempts to wrestle with topics that will later become some of the other main themes of his books, including his masterpieces like The Following Story or The Foxes Come At Night : the nature of human memories, the problems of one's temporal and spatial identity ("I drove past here yesterday, and am I still the same person, here and now?"), the relationship between a person and the physical space they occupy, and what happens to that space when the person dies, which is a topic that appears thirty-five years later in All Souls' Day .
The Knight Has Died is definitely not a book for novice Nooteboom's readers. The uninitiated may find it too slight, too enigmatic, and perhaps even too unfocused. This is my ninth book by the author and I just can't stop loving his beautiful prose.
Three and a half stars.
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