Monthly Archives: September 2009

Rituals- Cees Nooteboom


Man is a sad mammal that combs its hair….

Recently in a lit forum, a poster started a thread bemoaning the lack of “Existential Novelists” in contemporary world literature. “Where are the new Sartres and Camus?”  he asked…
The Dutch Novelist Cees Nooteboom (pronounced Case Note-bom) won the Pegasus Prize for his 1973 novel Rituelen (Rituals in the English version wonderfully rendered by Adrienne Dixon). While I am willing to wager that Nooteboom would not be comfortable in going so far as to call this an ‘existential novel’, it most definitely takes the Big Absence question head on, even having one of the major characters quote the crusty (largely now  absent) author of Nausea repeatedly.

Viscera (aka Good Faith/Bad Faith)
Inni Wintrop our hero wanders Amsterdam in the book’s  three sections, taking place in the 60’s, 50’s and 70’s. We meet him after his wife Zita has left him for an Italian, and he botches a suicide attempt. The novel’s second section looks back at a younger Inni and his fateful encounter with the first of the two characters (or ‘Others’)  that will give the narrative its hinge points: Arnold Taads, one of the more intriguing characters in contemporary literary fiction. The last section’s narrative jumps to the 70’s and is centered around the enigmatic Philip Taads, (unacknowledged) son of Arnold.

Bones (aka Despair and Nausea)
This section was originally intended to be left blank by way of illustration, but I decided that like Inni Wintrop, amusement and distraction is helpful while floating detached above the void that is our existence. The 145 page novel is a condensed three movement work. Nooteboom places the named section Intermezzo first. The third person narrator, though unnamed, relates the story while drawing conclusions and observations in a wry understated voice as a self conscious teller of this tale. The tale teller distances the reader as an observer, which conducts the reader to experience Inni’s story with the same detachment as Inni’s experiences his world;

He refused to allow them in, that’s what it boiled down to. He might be sitting in the audience following the action attentively, certainly if the actors were as fascinating as this one, but really to be a part of it was impossible. He remained, even if he felt sympathy for the actor, an onlooker. If you kept silent, the stories would come all by themselves.

After his wife abandons him and his failure to cease existing, inertia is overcome only by gravity, and Inni’s  life somewhat reluctantly rolls along. We are not yet to judge Inni’s unwillingness to be an ‘actor’, to define himself (in the existentialist sense) since it is hinted that one has to allow that Inni is a most willing ‘experiencer’, open to the flux that is the possible. A friend comments to him that he does not so much live, as “allow himself to be distracted”. Time IS a major problem for Inni, more specifically, how he experiences it. As an unengaged reactant, he has little control over the tempo at which he is amused. Since he is open to the whims of chaos and uncertainty, (floating after all, does have its consequences) his attitude to the future is not so much dread as a helpless boredom. In an absurd version of ‘becoming’, Inni’s single ‘ambition’ is to interact, to connect with the sexual feminine. The unnamed narrator associates Inni’s act of climax as a twist on transformation in the spiritual sense. Since this carefully crafted novel explores rituals as a symbol of how three main characters relate to their idea of the world, physically and metaphysically, Inni’s conquests, of his tortured feminine construct is HIS ritual.

The Two Taads: (or East does not meet West)
Meeting Inni as a young man, the Sartre quoting Arnold Taads first trigger’s in our hero the idea of ‘Becoming’, that even the notion that one’s self could change, could transform, was a possibility. Arnold Taads leads a time afflicted monastic existence. He was raised a Catholic but estranged himself from the church after a sojourn into Sartre’s writings.
He has ritualized the basic functions of his existence, his eating sleeping and reading take place to the minute in his self imposed prison of time. Through Arnold Taads, Inni and the reader get a first hand penetrating exploration of one individuals grappling with the question of belief in a Godless universe. In a wonderful scene of dinner conversation between Taads and the Clergyman Monsignor Terrue , the exchange is acutely poignant overcoming its lighthearted tone. Inni distills from this the sense of utter isolation and loneliness of Arnold Taads:

He had discovered from this that a distance can exist between people which expresses such a terrible otherness that anyone witnessing it will almost die of melancholy. Everyone knows these things, but no one has always known them-upright walking creatures of the same species, who moreover use the same language to make it clear to each other that there is an unbridgeable chasm between them.

The last ‘Other’ that Inni’s self is reflected against is Phillip Taads, the estranged son of Arnold Taads who Inni meets by sheer chance when Inni is now a balding 40something dilettante art trader.
Like the father, the son is similarly isolate and lonely, literally a monk in an apartment. Nooteboom works in symbolism of the trinity and transubstantiation, examining the rituals of both Eastern ceremony, and orthodox mysticism in counterpointing the two Taads. Philip is a Japanese student who is a practicing Taoist. Ironically like his father, he embraces the suffering aspect of the self’s coping with the aridity of nonexistence (or existence in a Godless void). The Japanese Ceremony of Tea is compared to the ritual of the Catholic Eucharist. The rituals are an expression of each individual’s belief . They share the idea of  transformation. Wine into Blood is compared with the mixing of the tea in the sacred bowl in the eastern thought. This is ironically compared to Inni’s own ritual of transcendence, his epiphany of memory when he first drank malt whisky with Arnold Taads. For Nooteboom, this will to transform, or transcend as exemplified by the trinity of the Taads and the Monsignor are all in essence an expression of escape. Even to the extent of  equating it with the absurd escape of this world by suicide. Notably Nooteboom’s Rituals refuses to release Inni into the atmosphere of despair and alienation untethered. The loneliness of Father and Son Taads, itself is absurd:

The universe could do quite well without this world, and the world could do quite well without people, things and Inni Wintrop for a while. But unlike Arnold and Philip Taads, he did not mind waiting for events to take their course. After all, it might take another thousand years. He had a first class seat in the auditorium, and the play was by turns horrific, lyrical, comic, tender, cruel and obscene.

What I Took Away (to the background music of  Float On by Modest Mouse)

This novel has been I think rightly referred to as a fable. This maybe be the most thought-provoked-per-page of fiction I have read in recent memory. It contains enough quotable sentences to provide forum signatures for years. The remarkable part is that it manages be profound and penetrating while being accessible and eminently interesting. A lot of this has to do with creating characters as captivating as the protagonist and two major players as potent as the Taads. Certain swedes could do much worse than awarding Cees Nooteboom the holy grail of literary prizes.


1 Comment

Filed under Cees Nooteboom

The Green House– Mario Vargas Llosa



The prolific Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is according to many, THE Voice of Latin American literature. He is well known for his political activism and  has a long tenure as a high profile spokesman for Spanish language letters. In 1994 he was the recipient of the prestigious Miguel De Cervantes Prize. His oeuvre spans journalism, fiction, criticism and drama. Having only read his War at the End of the World oh so many years ago, I picked his second novel 1965’s,  The Green House to review. Some critics hold this up as his most important work. Being a glutton for punishment, I opted for it since its also thought of as his most difficult novel.

There is no single protagonist per se, rather there are intertwined narratives focusing around six major characters who are all inhabitants of the Piura region of  northwest Peru. Their story is gradually re-constructed in Llosa’s narrative kaleidoscope which I will visit in Bones. The novel’s plot, which as readers of Traces know by now usually is not summarized, is complicated. Suffice to say its synopsis would be a feat in itself…But since it IS a challenge, here is a rough sketch anyway:
In the rural village of Santa María de Nieva, lives Bonifacia, a young Aruguna Indian who is a nun-in-waiting. She lets two Aruguna Indian girls out of the convent’s enclosed yard to escape, as they were forcibly taken from their jungle huts by soldiers in an attempt to ‘civilize’ them. After she is expelled from the convent one narrative follows her trajectory from Nun to prostitute (as ‘Wildflower’) and her relationships that will affect the five other main characters. Meanwhile another storyline follows the life of Don Anselmo, a stranger who appears one day and endears himself to the townspeople, later he becomes the proprietor of The Green House, a brothel he has built at the edge of town. After a debacle and tragedy (no plot spoiled here) he undergoes a transformation of sorts and becomes a quasi-orphic figure known as ‘the harp player’. Simultaneously related is the story of the fugitive Japanese Trader Fushía and his part in the development of the region against the backdrop of the story of the Lituma, a soldier and local home town favorite who becomes a ‘cop’ and is sent by the corrupt Governor to put a stop to the exploitation by the Rubber traders (who compete with the equally corrupt Governor) of the indigenous Indian tribes. Then we have the side story of Lalita, wife of first Fushía, then Adrían Nieves, who uses the men as they use her. Lastly is the story of the river ‘pilot’ Adrían Nieves, whose actions interrelate with all the above mentioned as he is relied on as a navigator who plies his boat on the jungle rivers, facilitating at different points, both the illegal traders and the soldiers who will later hunt him.

The overall structure is a montage that Llosa’s favorite American author Faulkner would have envied. The narrative jumps back and forth chronologically from a myriad of perspectives, and each section’s context only gradually makes sense as the collage is pieced together. Of the two main frames, one is an ongoing reconstruction of the past part the illustrious fugitive Trader Fushía played in his trade with the different jungle tribes, as he later relates to his only trusted fellow trader Don Aquilino , as he gradually fills in gaps in time where Aquilino was not present. Framed within their narrative, Llosa uses a “picture in picture” technique to flashback to dialogue sections in present tense to the actual scenes he is relating, ‘camera shots’ of exchanges of conversation. As if dramatizing, or ‘showing’ while simultaneously telling Fushía’s perspective of the same fictive events to Aquilino. The jumps are frequent and at first hard to follow, but later the repetitions of this device their context becomes apparent and resonate off each other. The second main frame narrative threads interleave the stream of consciousness sections focalized from many different characters, even peripheral minor players. These flashbacks serve to fill in the gaps in the six different stories.

Themes and Leitmotifs:
Llosa sets up dichotomies to function as a dialectics of forces at play in his re-textualizing a portion of Peru’s history. ‘Savage’ vs ‘Civilized’: the jungle is a central metaphor for complexity, disorder, savagery. As a symbol of growth uncontrolled it is also associated with inherent beauty, and its fecundity can not occur without death and decay, the life cycle is dependent on it. Two of the main six characters will suffer disease and ‘rot’. The region itself is at the junction of desert and jungle, at the mercy of the uncontrolled wild growth and the windswept sand that falls at night blown in from the high desert. The theme of the captive, as in enslavement to ‘civilization’ vs the fugitive as exemplified by the the Aruguna people as well as the Traders and soldiers.

To carry the idea of binaries further, the six protagonists can be separated into pairs counterpointing each other in terms of their part as either ‘betrayers’ or as ‘innocents’:

Fushía- exploiter of the native people vs Anselmo- exploiter of women and the weakness of men
Bonifacia- orphan whore vs Sergeant Lituma- ‘whore’ of his government
Lalita- betrayer of her lovers vs Nieves- the innocent scape goat

What I took Away
‘Disorder and early sorrow’ could summarize my reading experience. The reader can become accustomed to the split screen dialogue exchanges and one wishes the interior monologue sections were consolidated. Llosa’s ability to give life to the characters who must carry the story is not in question. The very bitter ironies Llosa develops come off brilliantly: who in Piura are actually the ‘civilized’ and who are ultimately the ‘savages’? Who are the real prostitutes: the ladies in the Green House, or the officials in power that are supposed to impose order? Where this ambitious novel falls short is in its diversity of narrative directions,  its parity in treating the separate stories dilutes its affect. There is no single personal fate or compelling idea rising above the narrative landscape or developed enough to focus Llosa’s collage. I would tend to believe that Bonifacia/Wildflower and Don Anselmo/the harp player are the two figures that Llosa meant to catalyze the story, but their momentum is never allowed to build. In the end, I would be hard pressed to say if the fates of the Piurans mattered enough to be memorable for this reader.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mario Vargas Llosa