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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.


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The Procedure– Harry Mulisch



Traces expedition into Nobel candidate territory continues with Harry Mulisch’s 1999 novel, The Procedure. Mulisch has an extensive multi-genre oeuvre of at least 14 novels,  as well as drama, essays and books of poetry. He is considered one of the giants of post war Dutch literature and recipient of the Prize for Dutch literature for lifetime achievement. His two best known novels are his 1982 The Assault and his 1992 The Discovery of Heaven, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies.

Genesis, Golems, Double Helix and Eboent oh my….

Having been forewarned that Mulisch is somewhat professed autodidact (self taught smart guy), I expected the unexpected in reading this, my first work by the author. Indeed.  Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into  ‘Deeds’, and each Deed further broken into ‘Documents’. The authorial presence was introduced in the first Document of the first Deed, titled Speaking, when our narrator instructs us precisely how the story is going to unfold, and a warning to prepare ourselves ‘through introspection and prayer’, as this tale is not for those who need immediate action and suspense, that he “can’t do it that way this time”….

The opening Document Man, explains the narrator’s interpretation of the biblical Creation story in which he informs us that a close reading of Genesis reveals ‘man’ was created three times. This is a portent of the three ‘creations’ that will take place in the novel. In the second document The Character, our narrator informs us that his opening section has caused the other ‘impure readers’ to flee and now it’s just ‘you and me’. He argues in circuitous fashion that literature is essentially theological in nature and that in the creation of a story:

The narrator of a story is at the same time not the narrator. The story itself is the actual narrator, it tells itself; from the first sentence onward, the narrative is a surprise to the narrator too…

He further explains that in the world of fiction, man is a ‘character’ having the additional meaning of a formation of characters in the alphabet, ‘figures on a typewriter’ and that the process of fictive creation is one of imitatio dei, like Jehovah. This  God-Like sense of the creative process of writing will turn out to be a key referent and be echoed by the three different stories that are variations on the theme of Creation, Genesis, and Conception.

 As in postmodern fiction enterprises, we are by now used to having ‘self conscious narratives’ the story teller winks to the reader that he and we both really know ‘what up’…Mulisch in The Procedure goes one better. He has offered to take the novitiate reader along for the whole mystery of conception, its creation, genesis and death.

Mulisch is obviously well in control of his material. From the embedded (well known) tale of  16thcentury Prague Rabbi Jehudah Loew who according to Jewish legend, successfully made a Golem, to an expose on DNA mapping and its brief history. The Deed ‘A’ is narrated in first person, Deed ‘B’ is constructed by three ‘communications’ from the protagonist: the internationally famous biochemist Victor Werker to the mother of his child. They form the narrative of the modern Pygmalion story. The prose for the first two thirds of the book is for the most part clinically detached and wry-ironical in tone, but the last two communications that form the central part of the novel are heart wrenching and powerful. Deed ‘C’, entitled The Conversation, is in third person ‘free indirect speech’ in which Victor tries to make sense of his past, present and future. The complex plot comes together full circle. That said, there is not the sense of total coherence of the disparate sections. Probably my impression is due to a momentum not sustained in the last section, it is more cerebral and in a completely different register from the emotionally moving previous ‘communique’ sections… 

What I took Away:

This is one of those novels, short as it is (230 pages in my Penguin edition) that would reward future re-readings. It’s intelligent, and is a rare bird for being a novel of ideas that IS also suspenseful and readily engaging. I would re-read it for the ‘Third Communication’ alone. Its that powerful. If you pass Mulisch’s ‘initiation’ into The Procedure, he will be glad to take you along for the ride…

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