Thursday 11 July 2013

'Rituals' by Cees Nooteboom (Review)

While I've made a couple of efforts for Iris' Dutch Literature events, I can't say I've read a lot from the Netherlands.  However, one writer I have tried a couple of times (with fair results) is Cees Nooteboom.  I was very happy then to get home from work one day to discover a pile of books from MacLehose Press waiting for me, three of which were by Nooteboom.

A few hours later, I only had two left to read ;)

Rituals (translated by Adrienne Dixon) was Nooteboom's first big success, and it's definitely a book which shows an accomplished writer.  The central figure is Inni Wintrop, a man about town who floats through life, sleeping around and making money through shares and art sales.  When his wife leaves him in 1963, he decides (on a whim) to hang himself - that he fails in his half-hearted suicide attempt is, as the reader will discover, strangely unsurprising.

Nooteboom then takes Inni (and the reader) ten years back in time to meet Arnold Taads, a one-eyed former Dutch downhill-skiing champion, before the story jumps to 1973, where Inni encounters Philip Taads, Arnold's son.  Despite the fact that both struggle with giving meaning to life, there isn't a lot that connects the two Taadses - except that they will both take their own lives too...

Rituals, as the name suggests, is a book about the habits and routines we develop to enable us to get through our daily life.  The writer, in his dry, idiosyncratic manner, shows us several ways of coping with our natural existential angst, perhaps posing a question as to which is the best.  We begin with Inni, and our initial stance is that his woes are wholly due to his pointless, pleasure-seeking ways:
"If he had ever had any ambition, he would have been prepared to call himself a failure, but he had none.  He regarded life as a rather odd club of which he had accidentally become a member and from which one could be expelled without reasons having to be supplied.  He had already decided to leave the club if the meetings should become all too boring."
p.19 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
However, Nooteboom is to spend the rest of the novel showing us that Inni isn't the only one struggling to make sense of it all.

The two Taadses are very different people, and despite knowing Arnold for many years, Inni never even suspects the existence of Philip until they meet.  However, their attempts to deal with life are fairly similar.  While Arnold subjugates daily life to the artificial strictures of time, allowing nothing and no one to interrupt his minutely-detailed schedule, Philip retreats into an invented world of Japanese asceticism, his interest in the culture completely divorced from its present reality.  Both believe that they can cope with life by retreating inside a bubble of their own making - both are mistaken...

Nooteboom is far from judgemental though; he is merely using his puppets to look at the different ways we while away our hours in the mortal realm.  It's easy to criticise Inni and his refusal to commit to making a lasting impression on the world, but his existence of occasional hedonism and random encounters is not the worst of the choices here.  Religion, whether Eastern or Western, doesn't appear to help any of the characters, and money, far from being a help just seems to make it more difficult to motivate yourself...

I loved the style of Rituals.  Nooteboom has a sardonic, occasionally dark, voice, one which seems to know that everything is pointless, but enjoys smirking at the futile efforts people make to convince themselves otherwise.  The sentences are very different to the elegant ones of, say, Javier Marías - they're full of jerky, confronting clauses with little flow (a very Germanic style).  The writer enjoys playing with images too, such as the idea of the sacred chalice, a kind of Holy Grail theme, one which has some rather unexpectedly gruesome consequences.  I also enjoyed his rather unusual view of a lunchtime spread:
"My God, how many ways there are to mess about with the corpses of animals.  Smoked, boiled, roasted, in aspic, blood red, black and white checkered, fatty pink, murky white, marbled, pressed, ground, sliced.  Thus death lay displayed on the blue-patterned Meissen.  Not even a whole school could have eaten all that." (p.99)
I think I'll just have some toast instead ;)

Rituals, then, is an admirable book, a seemingly slight story which makes the reader think a little harder than they might have expected to.  While it's easy to look down on Inni, and laugh at the odd habits of Arnold and Philip Taads, the truth is that we all have our rituals, and we're all just filling our time as best we can in an effort to make our stay on Earth worthwhile.  It's a book which will make each reader reflect: how do you live your life?  And (perhaps more importantly) how should you...