Cees Nooteboom is one of several well-known international writers whose work was made available in English through Christopher MacLehose’s Harvill Press. Nooteboom’s readership in the UK, unlike that of Murakami and Henning Mankell, was insufficient to tempt Random House, Harvill’s purchaser, to continue publishing him. It is cheering to see the phoenix MacLehose turn some of the proceeds from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which he published in this country, towards Nooteboom again. This book will never augment the bestseller charts, but its low-key form bears greater truths than any number of noisily marketed ‘masterpieces’.
Although set in a variety of places round Europe – Venice, the Ligurian coast, Spain, Holland – the eight stories in this collection have common elements that make them a unity. The most powerful ones are ‘Gondolas’, ‘Heinz’, ‘Paula’ and ‘Paula II’, all of which use photographs as a spur to remembrance, and concern loves and events from decades ago. The first three of these are written from the point of view of a Dutch writer as he approaches old age; the fourth is narrated by Paula’s disembodied voice, long after she has died in a hotel fire. It is an improbable conceit, but it works. She knows that her photograph was propped against the window of the monastic apartment of a man in the previous story, and it is only in the intensity of his remembrance that she feels herself to have existence. Offering her own view of their ill-starred love, she tells him: ‘I had to leave you with the delusion that for me it was only a quick fling … just one of those strategies people use to deal with the impossible.’ The impossible then takes on a further dimension when she refers to a night spent together in the desert, when
I plucked up the courage to ask if anything was wrong and you told me not a night went by without a moment at which you no longer wished to be alive … And then you said something I have never forgotten. The foxes come at night. Something your grandmother had said a lifetime ago, when you were still a child, and you never forgot it. Nor did I.
There is a searing truth to this simplicity, and the absence of analysis. It doesn’t matter anymore why he wished no longer to be alive, nor whether things might have been otherwise: it is a condition with which he has lived and dealt in his own way, and which she too had to live and deal with – a fact of life.
‘Gondolas’ finds the narrator ‘standing motionless on the Riva degli Schiavoni holding a snapshot’ of himself with an American girl from forty years before. Their affair was briefly resumed twenty years later, after she had had two children and divorced. Then she died of cancer. What did it all mean? In ‘Heinz’, the narrator turns his attention to a group photograph of expats in Italy. At its centre is the jovial Heinz, but the image gives no clue to the secrets he harboured within him. Over a period of years, as Heinz drank himself to death, the narrator learned that he had had another love, before his marriage to the stolid Molly, about which he kept silent:
Dénouement? None. This is real life, clueless and plotless … Come upon a photograph by chance and the figures will keep their mystery. Their eyes are like the eyes of animals, you cannot get inside them … We are our secrets, and, if all goes well, we will take them with us to where no one can touch them.
Nooteboom’s preoccupations are romantic, but his treatment is not whimsical: close observation, precise imagery and sardonic wit are evident in all the stories. This is what happens, he seems to say, and death comes to us all. It is melancholy, but there is a conviction in the modest approach that renders this artful work of fiction both wise and beautiful. It is elegantly translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke.