Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Roads to SantiagoRoads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

" We are in too much of a hurry to remain dead for so long."

Another phenomenal book, non-fiction this time, from my favorite writer. While one cannot expect masterpieces every time from even the greatest authors Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago (1993) reaches the upper regions of my rare five-star rating and deserves extremely slow reading to take full delight of the writing and to wallow in exquisite detail. I made notes about virtually each of the book's 340 pages and my review was originally four times longer - what follows is just a haphazard abridgement.

Mr. Nooteboom describes his travels in Spain - parallel travels as he points out: one in his rented car and another through the past. He is "a pilgrim on the Great Way to Santiago de Compostela"; he retraces the journeys of the faithful on the Camiño de Santiago, also known as St. James's Way, the main Catholic pilgrimage route that dates back well over one thousand years, to the 9th century. The motion through time-space yields a history book - history of Spain, a country with complicated Roman, Visigoth, Arab, Jewish, and Christian roots, yet a uniquely European country. Never in my life have I learned so much about a country from a single book. Mr. Nooteboom writes not just about the famous historical figures, like Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragón and Castille or Philip II, people that most of us have heard about. We meet scores of lesser known personages and - more importantly - the author guides us through the historical processes that were occurring throughout the roughly 1300 years. We are not just reading about Spain - we get immersed in its history and culture.

Travel book, history book, but also a book of remarkable wisdom. On the social scale the author contemplates the nature of history, its relationship with time, and the role of an individual in history, even if - as he points out in a sobering thought - most people believe they have nothing to do with it. In the psychological domain Mr. Nooteboom - who often retraces his steps from his previous trips in Spain - explains, for instance, why people need to relive the experiences from the past: the reason is human "desire to weave a strand of eternity into your own life." Art history is a frequent focus as is, of course, literature: Homer, Cervantes, Nabokov, Borges' universes, and his perplejidad that is life. Incredible!

So many passages took my breath away. The author visits El Burgo de Osma where a copy of the Codex Beato is displayed, also known as Commentary on the Apocalypse: the book contains a map of the world drawn in 1086, "inscribed with Visigothic lettering." In the little village of Santiago de Peñalba he finds a perfectly preserved Mozarabic church dating from 919, with the date carved in stone. How insignificant are the sound and the fury of today when one can touch human-made objects from one thousand years ago! To me the most stunning fragment in the entire book is the study of Las Meninas, a famous painting by Velásquez ("Velásquez paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be"). How can I ever thank the author for showing me the harmonies, the structures of truth and beauty I have never been aware of?

On the La Mancha plateau Mr. Nooteboom follows the footsteps of Cervantes and his heroes: Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Dulcinea. He has "an appointment with those fearsome adversaries, Don Quixote's windmills" on a long range of hills near Consuegra. He visits Dulcinea's home in El Toboso and offers the stunning line:
"To enter a house that once belonged to someone who never existed is no small matter."
Indeed. The author visits Extremadura and we read - in a rare non-European digression - about Pizarro and the ambush in Cajamarca, Peru, where the conquistadors massacred 2,000 unarmed Incas to commence the wholesale obliteration of Inca civilization. It is a disaster when we lose all our data on a hard disk. We mourn prehistoric paintings when they are defaced. Can we imagine the total destruction of a flourishing civilization? The people, their culture, their mythology, their gods. All gone forever.

And the magnificent, spellbinding, spine-tingling last paragraph of the book - a long stunning forceful paragraph that almost manages the impossible: summarize Spain in awe-inspiring prose. I could go on and on with my raves. The best non-fiction book I have ever read? Yes, I believe so.

Five stars.

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