Monday, 23 September 2013

'The Foxes Come at Night' by Cees Nooteboom (Review)

A few months ago, MacLehose Press reissued some books by Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom to coincide with his eightieth birthday, and I was lucky enough to receive copies of them.  At the time, I reviewed his debut novel, Rituals, but today's post looks at a far more recent work, allowing me to compare books from very different periods of the writer's life and career...

The Foxes Come at Night (translated by Ina Rilke) is a short collection of eight stories, first published in Dutch in 2009.  The pieces are very much thematically linked, with Nooteboom using the collection as an opportunity to examine age, memory and reflections on the past, usually from the perspective of a character remembering a lost partner or friend.

A common device used is the humble photograph, and the first story, 'Gondolas', is a good example of this.  In the story, a Dutch art journalist returns to Venice to stand in the place where he took a photograph forty years earlier.  Rather than lamenting the loss of a friend, the protagonist muses about how unimportant people are to the world:
"How extraordinary that things should still be the same!  The water, the cormorant-shaped gondolas, the marble step on which he sat.  It is just us making our exit, he thought, we leave the décor of our lives behind."
'Gondolas', p.11 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
By the end of the story, the reader is unsure as to whether the main character is here to bid his friend farewell, or to be rid of her memory...

Another story which uses a photograph to kick things off is 'Heinz', the longest story in the collection, one which sees a Dutchman reminiscing about his time living in Italy, and his friendship with the titular honorary Vice-Consul.  An alcoholic businessman secluded on the Italian coast, Heinz has an aura about him, one which attracts everyone around.  Sadly though, he is destined to burn out after shining brightly, and his friend studies the photograph looking for evidence of this eventual disaster in the faded picture...

While many stories focus on those who have departed, others focus more on the fate of those left behind.  In 'Late September', an elderly woman on an out-of-season Spanish island waits for some afternoon delight in the arms of a (slightly-) younger local, an event which feels more like a transaction than real pleasure.

'Last Afternoon' also focuses on an elderly woman, this time one who is lost in bitter-sweet memories of her late partner.  Her story revolves around amorous adventures, flowers and tortoises(!), but it is really about finally letting go of unfinished business:
"It was only now, at this mysterious moment of the cypress's shadow creeping up against the garden wall, that he was dead to her.  How could you be so sure about something like that?  There had in fact been three such moments, she reflected: the moment he left, that of his dying, and the present, long-drawn-out moment of beginning to forget him, of his passing into a shadow of himself, his real death."
'Last Afternoon', p.97
Once again, the living must realise that there is no point in dwelling on the actions of the long dead.

The Foxes Come at Night is the fourth of Nooteboom's works I've read, and his deceptively light touch is instantly recognisable.  In fact,  I'm also pretty sure that a minor character in a couple of the stories, Wintrop, is the 'hero' of his debut novel, Rituals... The stories should be depressing, but in Nooteboom's skillful hands, they are imbued with a touch of sarcasm, a subtle wink rather than a mournful sob.  We are told stories of loss and grief, but the underlying message seems to be to keep our chin up :)

Most of the stories are one-sided tales of mourning the lost, but the culmination of the collection is a two-part story which has a slightly different approach.  'Paula' shares many of the features of the other stories: we have a man looking at an old photograph, remembering a lost friend, telling us about the good old days in the company of a beautiful, charismatic figure.  He remembers a shared night in bed, a holiday in Africa and the last night he saw her...

...and then she gives her side of the story.  You see, 'Paula II' allows Paula to have her say from beyond the grave, and her memories are slightly different to those of the living.  She allows us to see the events we've just heard about from her angle, and she is actually the one who feels pity for her friend:
"Take your Zen monastery - I saw it coming miles off.  Forgive me for saying this, for someone still among the living you make rather a dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality."
'Paula II', p.129
It's a chilling reminder that the living have a responsibility to keep on living - even if they would rather mourn their dead...

While I've enjoyed all the Nooteboom books I've tried, I hadn't really found one I loved until now, but The Foxes Come at Night is definitely a work I'd recommend.  This is easily my favourite of the four I've read, a beautiful collection of thought-provoking stories which fit together perfectly - an example of a crafted collection of stories, rather than a selection of tales randomly bundled into a book.  It's one I hope to reread soon, especially the stories 'Paula'/'Paula II', as I think they are pieces which need a second look to appreciate them fully.  Perhaps Nooteboom is one of those rare writers who improve with age...