Let me say at the start that I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s nothing to do with the writing or the subject matter: absence, death, grief and loss. My quibble is with me – my heart understands the sentiments only too well. And my head, firmly in denial, insists that I’m still far too young for all that. Obviously unlike Nooteboom’s characters, I still have to learn acceptance.
Analysing his inspiration for this collection, Nooteboom asked himself: How do we feel about the people we love and remember at the end of our lives? If you’re going to say it , do it while you’re alive. And so that is what he has done.
That’s not to say that this collection is morbid. In fact, it is quite varied in tone. At times full of life and love. At others, melancholy, curious, dry. Always perceptive and written with great precision. Whether that be the wistful memories conjured up by old photographs:
The mere fact of being in possession of the same body – that was the true marvel. But of course it was not the same body. The person in possession of the body still went by the same name, that was as much as you could say.
the vividness of an thunderstorm, fully formed in just a few lines;
What Rosita would never forget was the ghastly alternation of light and dark, the man with the glass vanishing repeatedly, as though engulfed by successive waves of darkness. Each time they saw him he was a pace nearer the sea, his robotic gait unchanged.
or the sardonic wit of modest hopes.
We are our secrets, and, if all goes well, we will take them with us to where no-one can touch them.
The characters are just as diverse. Heinz, an alcoholic, drinking himself to death, and Paula, a woman who has died tragically, trying to converse with those she has left behind before she fades into nothingness. Nooteboom was at pains to mention that he doesn’t personally believe in this kind of afterlife but as an exercise in imaginative writing, Paula II is phenomenal. How do you converse with someone when all your points of reference have disappeared. After death, there is no concept of time and place.
Many of the stories take place on islands yet Nooteboom insisted that this was not a theme in itself. Locating his ex-patriates on islands did, however, enable him to focus on the intense relationships that form in those circumstances at the same time as the concentrated isolation that follows when those friendships are lost.
Ina Rilke’s translation is superb. It flows so naturally. A S Byatt said there isn’t a word to be inserted, taken away or substituted. Cees Nooteboom agreed wholeheartedly.
If it hadn’t been for Dutch Literature Month, I probably would have passed on this event. Neither would I have read The Foxes Come At Night in preparation for it. And I would have missed out on a fantastic discovery! So, once again, thank you, Irisonbooks. I’m having a great month!