Saturday, October 22, 2016

Letters to PoseidonLetters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The pain of time, our greatest asset. Rust, decay, mould that turns into music, something different from your eternal nectar. The final tally of our days, a gift no-one can take from us."

The sight of an elderly man about to cry on San Diego trolley is not something one would like to see. One tends to feel awkward and move to a seat farther away, just in case. But there is no drama at all, the would-be tears are not born of sadness, and the geezer passenger is just overwhelmed by emotion. The geezer is me, I am reading yet another book by Cees Nooteboom and his prose again reaches my inner core and moves me close to tears. I do not exactly know what makes Mr. Nooteboom's writing resonate with me stronger than any other author's but the sheer beauty of his prose sends shivers through my spine. Maybe what touches me the most is the thematic range of his work that focuses on human ephemeral existence, the convolution of time and space, and the European culture.

Letters to Poseidon (2012) indeed includes a set of 23 letters from the narrator to the god of the sea interspersed with 56 short pieces of prose - one could call them postcards - about things that have caught the author's attention. He explains himself: "My letters will be about things that I read, that I see, that I think. That I make up, that I remember, that surprise me." Many letters are framed as questions: How do the forgotten gods feel? "What do the gods actually think of us?" Yet I think it is the postcards that provide the depth to the collection.

The main motif of Letters is the juxtaposition of the immortal gods who "always are" and live outside of time with the transience of humans who are inescapably immersed in the time's flow, and who eventually will disappear as if they have never existed. Yet these transient, ephemeral beings are able to create magnificent cultures and mythologies that feature these very gods. It is the art that allows humans to achieve near-immortality despite the curse of time as the author shows in Poseidon VI (from which I have taken the epigraph) about Elliott Carter's composition Scrivo in Vento influenced by the 14th-century poem by Petrarch.

A few snapshots of Nooteboom's letters and postcards. The piece called River about Leticia, a city in Columbia, near the borders of Peru and Brazil, on the bank of the Amazon, brings memories of The Following Story where the travel up the Amazon serves as an unforgettable metaphor of human life and death. The piece Hesiod, in which the author stands on the same shore where the Greek poet, a contemporary of Homer from about 700 years BC, wrote his Theogony:
"The landscape across the water is his landscape, [...] the water at this hour is the same violet-dark as it was back then. [...] His poem is almost three thousand years old, but he would recognise everything here, the way the evening slowly shifts to darkness, the motion and the sound of the water as the sea flows into the strait of the bay, the waves as a slow, surging, never-ending recitation of light and dark sentences that now accompany his poem."
This is the Mediterranean Sea, where it all began, the birth place of the Greco-Roman culture, the source of the never-ending stream of near-immortality from Homer and Ovid, through Dante and Petrarch, through Kafka and Beckett, to the present.

Uh-oh... I like the book too much and am unable to finish the review... I have recently read and reviewed Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 Consider Nooteboom's prose where in the piece Books he writes:
"I hear a furious murmur that grows ever more insistent, like a choir singing through clenched teeth, an atonal, malevolent buzzing that reveals no meaning at all, the stifling lament of ink and paper, the sound books make when they know they are being burned or drowned, the keening of words that will never be read again."
I wish Mr. Bradbury could have written this well.

Less-than-a-page-long piece Veils is about the world below the surface of the sea, on the other side of the "shifting silver" membrane that separates the two worlds, about the "domain of silence" where "words still exist, but are stripped of their sound, ghosts consisting solely of language." Another short piece, Blood Moon, touches on the expanding universe, Einstein's theory of relativity, human language, the calls of the curlews and owls, and ends with a pastoral fragment - quoted after the rating - that almost made an old man cry on the San Diego trolley.

It is hard to believe Mr. Nooteboom has not written Letters in English: the collection is wonderfully translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson. The book ends with substantial Notes and Illustrations that annotate the prose pieces. It is my least favorite aspect of Letters, but in some way it makes the work a little similar to W.G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn .

Four stars.

"[...] the moon has already climbed above the oleasters, the red has long since turned to ochre and the ochre to silver, the voice disappears into the distance, there is rustling all around me, the owl has found its first victim, the shriek of the field mouse echoes the pain of one substance transforming into another, and then a light mist rises, draping a veil over every secret."

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