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Blowing Hot and Cold

In the Dutch Mountains

by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Adrienne Dixon
Harcourt Brace, 128 pp., $11.00 (paper)

Toward the end of Cees Nooteboom’s novel In the Dutch Mountains, the novelist-narrator—by this point all but indistinguishable from Nooteboom himself—gets into a debate about truth and fiction with the shades of Plato, Milan Kundera, and Hans Christian Andersen. Why, asks the Nooteboom figure, do I have this irrepressible desire to fictionalize, to tell lies? (Adrienne Dixon mistranslates this as an “irresponsible” desire.) “From unhappiness,” answers Andersen. “But you are not unhappy enough. That’s why you can’t bring it off.” (“That’s why you can’t do it,” translates Dixon.)

This is the most penetrating of the self-insights in a novel which—like the rest of Nooteboom’s fiction—is as much about its own processes and raisons d’être as it is about the fictitious activities of its personages. For despite contortions of self-reflexiveness that in another writer (Samuel Beckett, for instance) might give rise to agonies of the spirit, Nooteboom and his narrator-avatars strike one as too urbane, too much at home in the world, to genuinely suffer. This—as his Hans Christian Andersen suggests—is Nooteboom’s peculiar misfortune as writer: that he is too intelligent, too sophisticated, too cool, to be able to commit himself to the grand illusioneering of realism, yet too little anguished by this fate—this expulsion from the imaginative world of the heartfelt—to work it up into a tragedy of its own.

At one of its reflexive levels, Nooteboom’s fiction has of necessity been about a search for a level of feeling that can be carried over undiminished into literary creativity. In one novel, The Following Story (1991; English translation 1993), an account of the love of the bumbling classics teacher Herman Mussert, a.k.a. Dr. Strabo the travel-guide writer, for his student Lisa d’India, he has been able to tap into feeling that is both passionate and creative. In the novella A Song of Truth and Semblance (1981; English translation 1984) the writer-hero and his nineteenth-century characters inhabit the same rooms and even the same emotional space: life, eros, and fiction seem to be on the brink of interpenetrating when Nooteboom falters, terminating what had promised to be the most eerily Jamesian of his tales with a trick ending. And in In the Dutch Mountains, Andersen’s diagnosis turns out to be right: for all the wit, for all the insight into the self and its fictions, for all the elegance of style, there is finally not enough feeling to drive the story forward.

In the Dutch Mountains began as a story under the title “The Snow Queen.” It was intended to be filmed, but the film was never made. Based on the Andersen story, it plays on its debt to Andersen quite openly.

The Snow Queen” is one of Andersen’s most remarkable tales, a plea for the precious uniqueness of childhood, an appeal against the premature induction of the child into rationality. Little Kai is stolen by the Snow Queen and kept captive in her castle in the far, cold North. His faithful playmate Gerda goes in quest of him. After many adventures and tribulations she arrives, borne on the back of a reindeer, at the Snow Queen’s great hall of ice. Here she finds Kai, blue with cold, playing an endless solitary game, trying to fit shards of ice together like pieces of a broken mirror. Her warm tears melt the ice around Kai’s heart, and he is freed from the Queen’s spell.

In Nooteboom’s version, Andersen’s children become Kai and Lucia, a perfectly handsome, perfectly happy young couple who make a living as illusionists in the theater. In their act Kai blindfolds Lucia and holds up an object before her, which she then “sees.” Their serene perfection (they are of one mind; they are continually compared with the reunited halves of a self that, as in the fable of Plato’s Symposium, has been split in two) arouses the envy of a mysterious femme fatale, who has Kai kidnaped and whisked off to her castle. There she keeps him in thrall, obliterating his memories of Lucia, subjecting him to her lust. For his coldly beautiful mistress Kai feels both fear and unwilling desire: her eyes are like “tunnels of glass and ice that led to a world where it was so cold that, if you penetrated too far into it, you would freeze to death.”

But Lucia has not forgotten him. Guided by a fairy-godmother figure who playfully metamorphoses into a reindeer, she tracks him down; with the aid of the police, the wicked queen is killed and Kai rescued.

This is pretty much Nooteboom’s central story. Kai and Lucia are no more individualized than the hero and heroine of any fairy tale. Lucia has “blue eyes like a summer sky,… lips…red as cherries,…teeth white as milk”: as her creator candidly admits, she is constructed according to “the conventions of European literary culture.” Their adventures take place against a vaguely realized Ruritanian background; for the rescue of Kai the clichés of the escapist thriller are unabashedly called upon.

Together with the shadow of Andersen’s original, this version of the Snow Queen story constitutes the pretext of Nooteboom’s novel. But the pretext is surrounded by a substantial frame, namely, the story of how the Snow Queen story gets to be told; and the frame story—in a move by now common in post-realist fiction—takes over the status of being the “real” story.

The hero and the narrator of the frame story is Alfonso Tiburón de Mendoza, a middle-aged Aragonese with a reverence for Plato and an affection for the Dutch language, a road engineer by profession and an amateur novelist. It is he who conducts Kai and Lucia through the ritualized movements of the European fairy tale, it is he who hopes to feel their story take on a life of its own under his hands, and it is he who, in the end, hears the ghost of Hans Christian Andersen telling him he is not a real writer because he is not unhappy enough.

Tiburón’s story of Kai and Lucia is set in a country that is fictional but not mythical. He calls it the Southern Netherlands: from the map on the wall of their theatrical agent (reproduced on the back cover of the Dutch edition) it would appear to encompass most of Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the old Yugoslavia. The South is joined to the Northern Netherlands (the Netherlands we know) by a corridor snaking through Belgium, Alsace, Bavaria, and the Austrian Tyrol.

In this split, bipartite country, migrants from the South congregate in bidonvilles around Northern cities. Northerners look down on Southerners as dirty and sly and use them for cheap labor; Southerners, for their part, call Northerners “the Dour Ones.” Tiburón, a Southerner at heart, dislikes Northerners for “their complacency and their unbridled greed, and the hypocrisy with which they [try] to conceal both.” For the North Tiburón feels Fear, “a fear that demands a capital letter, German style.” “Associated with this capital letter there is a feeling of being enclosed within a black cylinder, from which there is no easy escape.” Whereas the South is mountainous (whence the title of the English translation: Nooteboom’s title is simply In Nederland, In the Netherlands), the landscape of the North is flat, a landscape of “absolutism” where one is forced to live in “total visibility.”

The South can obviously be taken to stand for the second- and third-world hinterlands of northwest Europe. However, Nooteboom is not concerned to develop the political implications of his fable, or to exploit with much energy the possibilities it offers for polemic against his countrymen. Like Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire, he has some incidental fun concocting a language (here a Netherlandic dialect) for his Southerners. For the rest, he uses the South as a frankly fictitious backdrop to his action—an action which, as Andersen’s ghost implies, never quite comes to life.

The failure on Tiburón’s part to feel the story he is telling deeply enough to move the reader emerges in two ways: in a certain arbitrariness in the emotional logic of the core story, the story of Kai and Lucia; and in a failure, in the frame story, to raise the intensity of the writer-hero’s quest for the meaning of what he is engaged in beyond the levels of quizzical puzzlement, irritation, and bombast.

In his version of the fairy tale, Tiburón chooses to see a story about “perfect beauty and perfect happiness,” about “the marring of the sublime by the trivial.” But in making his hero and heroine adults and turning Kai into the Snow Queen’s sex slave, instead of her little reasoning automaton, Nooteboom not only changes the point of the fable—which of course he is entitled to do—but also loses touch with what in Andersen’s version becomes its moral driving force: the outrage and anguish aroused by the corruption of innocence, by the robbing of children of their childhood. The prelapsarian innocence that Tiburón wishes to claim for the grown-up Kai and Lucia is, by comparison, abstract. The fate of Andersen’s little Kai, the steadfastness of little Gerda, touch the heart; the plight of grown-up Kai in the Snow Queen’s bed simply does not.

Tiburón’s lucubrations on the differences between myth, fairy tale, and realist fiction evade this rather obvious point. Nooteboom’s ambition is to write a meditation on the nature of fiction, constructed as a story of the writing of a fiction with authorial digressions that will at the same time reflect on (and reflect) the collapse, in our time, of the illusions that gave energy to the great fiction of the past. As a further complication (to a writer who has never been afraid of complications), the fiction that the storyteller invents will become an allegory of his own life (or vice versa, depending on how much of a philosophical idealist he is). Thus as Tiburón drives around Spain inspecting roads and thinking about the book he is writing, and as the “real” Spanish landscape and the “fictitious” Southern Netherlands landscape interpenetrate in his mind, he picks up a hitchhiker, an attractive young woman of brisk, no-nonsense Dutch common sense (she dismisses the story of Jesus as “a fairy tale”) who nearly succeeds in seducing him: she is the Snow Queen in his own life.

Fairy tales are written by people,” Tiburón reflects—“that is what is wrong with them,” whereas “myths are…written by no one.” The writing of fairy tales betrays “a false longing for the writing of myths,” a longing to be pre-individual. “It [is] too late for that.”

This is elegantly put, but, in the context within which Tiburón speaks, off the point. Fairy tales are not always written by people—or, to put it another way, “authored”—though Andersen’s were; and in any event, what is wrong with the updated fairy tale that Tiburón writes is not that it is authored but that it is unmotivated, lacks a rationale. As the ghost of Andersen hints, one cannot see what, at the deepest level, has driven Tiburón (or Nooteboom) to write it.

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