Enigma Variation

The Following Story

by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Ina Rilke
Harcourt Brace/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 115 pp., $14.95

It was a dark and stormy night,
The brigands were on the
   mountain,
And the chief brigand said:
“Alfonso, tell us a story,”
And the story went as follows:
“It was a dark and stormy
   night…”

This is the pattern of The Following Story by the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom. He specializes in very short, enigmatic, metaphysical novels. This latest one is so beguiling to read that it convinces one, straight off, that at any rate the translator, Ina Rilke, must have got everything right. When the book appeared in the UK at the beginning of the year, the word “elegiac” figured in many of the reviews it got. They were nearly all favorable; and sometimes reproachful as well, rebuking the reading public for having neglected a remarkable writer. Nooteboom’s work is well thought of in Europe (especially in German-speaking countries) and The Following Story won the Aristeion Literature Prize.

Its peculiar appeal is foreshadowed in the epigraph by Theodor Adorno, which begins: “Modesty hesitates to express metaphysical concepts directly.” Nooteboom’s epigraphs are a polyglot liberal education in themselves, and clues to his self-deprecatory writing personality as well. Rituals, for instance, is preceded by Stendhal:

Personne n’est, au fond, plus tolérant que moi. Je vois des raisons pour soutenir tous les opinions; ce n’est pas que les miennes ne soient fort tranchées, mais je conçois comment un homme qui a vécu dans des circonstances contraires aux miennes a aussi des idées contraires.

Straight after this, and introducing the first section of the novel, comes Theodor Fontane: “Und allen Plänen gegenüber begleitet mich die Frage: ‘Was soll der Unsinn?’; eine Frage, die überhaupt ganz und gar von mir Besitz zu nehmen droht.” In the Dutch Mountains starts even more diffidently with a quotation from Hans Christian Andersen: ” ‘Where did we get the story from?’ ‘Out of the dustbin, with all that old rubbish.’ ” Modesty, tolerance, diffidence shading into cheerful despair are disarming qualities, and Nooteboom puts them across without losing one iota of their attractiveness. His style is pared down and laid back, quite deceptively casual, because in fact it is up to great set pieces of imaginative descriptive writing: journeys up the Amazon, into space with Voyager, into the past, and into classical mythology. Since the book has only 115 pages, it is obvious, even from this incomplete list of contents, that Nooteboom practices a carefully organized economy. Though generally elegiac of voice, he is very often very funny.

His previous novels have all been fables or parables. This one is a parable too; but it has what the others perhaps lacked, a soul, or at any rate a convincingly described first-person hero with a soul; and that is surely an advance, because a novel’s endearing qualities work best when they’re incarnate. Nooteboom’s hero is not at all heroic; on the contrary: he looks like Socrates, and that is his nickname among the pupils of the school where he teaches classics …

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