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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.

For the first quarter-century of his writing career, until the success of his third novel, Rituals, in 1980, Cees Nooteboom’s reputation in the Netherlands was as a travel writer who also dabbled in poetry and fiction. While underestimating his rather cerebral verse, this view is not inaccurate with regard to his two early novels, which, though avant-garde by the standards of their day, are otherwise unremarkable. (Both Philip and the Others and The Knight has Died have been brought out in translation by Louisiana State University Press, along with Harcourt Brace a champion of Nooteboom in the US.)

In his first travel books, put together from his regular column in the newspaper De Volkskrant, Nooteboom gradually shifted away from the journalistic travelogue as a genre in which to comment on the society and politics of another country, toward travel writing as a form within which to reflect on the deeper currents of life of a foreign culture.

With his subsequent move to the glossy Dutch magazine Avenue he was freed to write longer pieces, and began to develop travel narrative in the direction of the personal essay, marked by a more ironic distance from his subject, as well as by a new richness of style, by excursions into art criticism, and by a growing preoccupation with the subject of memory, both personal and communal.

Roads to Santiago is the first of Nooteboom’s travel books to be translated into English, despite the fact that one of them, De Zucht naar het Westen (The Longing for the West; 1985), grew out of a series of visits to the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

De Zucht naar het Westen is not a particularly good book. It shows the weaker side of Nooteboom as an observer: his interpretative skills, trained on Old World landscapes rich in cultural associations and on architecture layered with historical meaning, turn out to be of little use in America, where surfaces are often all there is and meanings are anything but hidden. Too much time is spent on the futile task of comparing American reality with images of America exported by the US entertainment industry. Toward the end Nooteboom is moved to write despairingly, from a small town in Montana: “There is no transcendence in these places, as in an Italian mountain village, nothing refers to anything else, nothing evokes a memory or a thought of the future, no reflection is possible.” The book comes to life only when he is able to read small-town Wisconsin against an opportunely discovered collection of turn-of-the-century photographs of the same sites, which bring in a dimension of historical depth; or to smuggle meditations on works of art (including some vivid pages on Edward Hopper) into his travel narrative.

Roads to Santiago originates in travel essays written between 1979 and 1992. Generally speaking, the later pieces are more thoughtful and substantial than the earlier. The text has been lightly edited to mask its Dutch origins, and a few pages added. Too lightly edited, perhaps: the foreign reader will hardly be interested by the problems of writing about Spanish churches in a language (Dutch) that lacks technical terms for Romanesque architecture. The decision to omit the dates of the original pieces is also questionable: Nooteboom has much to say about Basque terrorism, but the text does not indicate that the events referred to belong to the mid-1980s.

One of the few constants in my life,” writes Nooteboom, “is my love—a lesser expression will not do—of Spain…. The Spanish character and the Spanish landscape correspond to what in essence I am.” As a writer he even claims Spanish paternity: accused of being an epigone of Borges, he has responded that both Borges and he emerge from the hand of Calderón.*

The landscape that speaks to Nooteboom most directly is the meseta, the high, empty plain of Castile, which evokes in him “feelings of eternity,” and which he contrasts with the “spiritual bleakness” of the Mediterranean coast, the Mecca of millions of tourists but to him “the curse of Spain.” For the discerning traveler he recommends instead those provincial towns of the interior—Soria, for instance—that have retained their native poverty. “Poverty does not shine, poverty is quiet, poverty does not discard the old in favour of the veneer of emblematic junk which, like a botched facelift, has messed up so much of what was old and authentic.”

More of the medieval past survives in Spain, says Nooteboom, than anywhere else in Europe, aided in no small part by what he calls the Spanish “mania for preservation.” Much of his attention is devoted to little-known churches and monasteries, to which he is led by scholarly and antiquarian sources rather than by popular guidebooks.

Here the attitude he adopts is that of a man of the late twentieth century wandering among survivals of a world that can still, to an extent, be read and understood, while simultaneously projecting himself in his imagination into a not-too-distant future when Christian traditions of symbolism will have died out entirely—in other words, into a future in which Christianity will have crossed the line separating religion from myth. His view of the Spanish scene—of “stooped, gnarled peasants with broad medieval faces of the kind that will have disappeared from the face of the earth in a hundred years’ time”—is thus full of melancholy foreknowledge.

The two most considerable chapters of Roads to Santiago are on the painters Velásquez and Zurbarán (the chapter on Cervantes is, by comparison, pedestrian: from a writer as much in the Cervantean line as Nooteboom, this is surprising). The language in which he discusses Velásquez is unabashedly idealistic. “From the depths of each portrait,” he writes of the paired paintings of Philip IV and his dwarf, “radiates the spirit, the soul, that which tells you that Velásquez recognized the intrinsic qualities of each, because he knew their truth.”

This is a move worth noting on the part of a writer whose own fiction—witness In the Dutch Mountains—revolves so much around the skeptical interrogation of claims to truth, and who in Roads to Santiago itself shows himself at home in what he calls “the church of Borges, Calvino, Barthes,” a church that treats the visible world as a labyrinth of signs.

At issue here is the question not only of how we read paintings but of how, and in what terms, we value them. Nooteboom confronts the question in a passage as woolly in the original as in translation:

Truth, reality, lies, illusion, the thing itself or its name, are all will-o’-the-wisps seeking to relegate the confusing tangos of meaning to the ballroom of postmodernism or of metafiction, just to be rid of them for a while, like a hornet that you chase away either because you are afraid or because you find it annoying.

What Nooteboom seems to be saying here is that although pictures can be looked at as tricks with paint (just as poems can be looked at as tricks with words), and although much of his own art criticism consists of detecting the trick of the brush behind the illusion of truth, certain artworks seem to compel us to return to the language of the real and the true, a language that may be old and despised but remains the only one adequate to the task.

More original than the chapter on Velásquez is the one on Zurbarán (which has little to do with Nooteboom’s travels in Spain, having been occasioned by the big Zurbarán exhibition in Paris in 1988). Here Nooteboom concentrates on Zurbarán’s renderings of cloth and fabric, which to him constitute “an essay on the relation between light, colour and material such as would not be seen again before Cézanne. [Zurbarán] was concerned with something that lay far beyond the borders of human psychology or the anecdotal, a passion of such intensity as to justify calling it mystical.” For the English-language edition the publisher has augmented the Zurbarán illustrations (all in black and white, unfortunately) and added several new pages by Nooteboom, including a striking account of The Temptation of Saint Jerome.

Religious tourism—which includes not only genuine pilgrimage but visits to religious sites by travelers with no spiritual goal in view—makes up a large part of the tourism industry in Europe. Each year some 100 million religiously motivated visits take place to the six thousand places of pilgrimage on the continent.

In Spain the principal destination remains the shrine of Saint James the Apostle (Santiago) in Galicia. As Nooteboom points out, it was the traffic of pilgrims heading for Santiago from countries to the north that kept the idea of a Christian Spain alive during the Middle Ages, making Santiago the spiritual source for the reconquest of Iberia. Santiago in the title of Nooteboom’s book is the nominal endpoint of his travels. However, as both he and his road engineer Tiburón are aware, the detour—or, in the Dutch word preferred by Tiburón, the omweg, the roundabout way—usually yields more adventures than the high road; being a pilgrim is more important than arriving at the shrine.

Nooteboom’s book is more about Spain and its detours than about Spaniards, who appear only as waiters, museum guides, and other background figures. It contains illuminating pages on Visigothic civilization in Spain, on the Reconquista, on Philip II, but little on contemporary history, and in particular on the economic forces that have shaped that history. Why, for instance, is Castile so empty? “The young people no longer want to stay,” suggests an informant, and Nooteboom passes this on as a good enough explanation. Yet behind the depopulation of central Spain—depopulation so bad that some observers have called it desertification—lie deliberate policies set in train by Franco’s technocratic ministers of the 1960s. These policies brought about a huge transfer of population from the agricultural heartland of Spain to the cities. Millions of people quit the countryside; hundreds of thousands of small farms disappeared; thousands of villages were abandoned by their inhabitants. It is thus that the melancholy spaces were achieved that so move Nooteboom’s spirit.

Throughout Nooteboom stresses the fragility of what we call Spain, the way in which an ethnically diverse nation has throughout its history kept collapsing into its “singular, idiosyncratic fragments.” Like Gerald Brenan in The Spanish Labyrinth, he sees the bonds of nation as less important to ordinary Spaniards than those of town or village. In this respect Spain has kept the social culture of pre-modern Europe alive:

Sometimes it is as if Spain is out to preserve the past for the rest of Europe; sounds, smells, occupations which have long since vanished elsewhere,…human voices uttering long-drawn-out cries, exhortations reverberating among the houses, fruit and fish and flowers in carts and donkey baskets, all those things that have been rendered obsolete by social justice, technology and big business, leaving the world both richer and poorer.

To these eloquent words one can only add that—alas—they are less true today than when they were written in 1985. Old Spain is growing harder and harder to find; and, tragically, the travel writings of Cees Nooteboom are contributing to its disappearance. Throngs of Dutch and German readers, heeding Nooteboom’s advice, will already have skipped the Costa Brava in favor of the “mysterious, secluded, unknown” provincial towns of the interior where—he promises—“the food is simple and the wine cheap.” Roads to Santiago may persuade thousands more from the United States and Britain to head for these less and less mysterious, secluded, or unknown destinations. Whether he likes it or not, Nooteboom is part of the tourism industry.

There are a few slips in Ina Rilke’s translation: “378 kilometres square” for 378 square kilometers; to “err” through the Alhambra rather than to wander; confusion between the Dutch verbs vergezellen (accompany) and verzegelen (seal). Franco’s campaign of terror against the left began in 1936, not 1939. A rash and rather incoherent remark on Islam in Nooteboom’s original—that from the early North African invaders of Spain “Islam acquired the face that we still know today, a disheartening image of an intolerant religion which, aided by the riches of the present century, constitutes an underestimated danger to the rest of the world”—is toned down to blandness in the translation, whether on the author’s initiative or the translator’s we do not know. But in general Rilke rises well to the challenge of Nooteboom’s often sumptuous prose.

  1. *

    Daan Cartens, editor, Over Cees Nooteboom: beschouwingen en interviews (The Hague: Bezige Bij, 1984).

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