After going a little astray for a full month, I felt like returning to the old rut again and in the end picked a rather slim volume from my shelves where it had been waiting undisturbed and patiently for many months. My penchant was towards something by a European author whose work has so far escaped my bibliomania and I was pleased to find that my instinct led me to a most intriguing philosophical novelette partly set in Lisbon. The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom deals with the many questions surrounding the experience of death and the inexplicable bond between body and mind, but also with matters of love and identity.
Cees Nooteboom was born as Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom in The Hague, the Netherlands, in July 1933. After different office jobs and first travels he made his debut as a fiction writer with Philip and the Others (Philip en de anderen) in 1955 which was followed by two more novels – De verliefde gevangene (1958) and The Knight Has Died (De ridder is gestorven: 1963) – and some volumes of poetry. In the 1960s and 1970s the author worked mainly as a journalist and travel writer, before bringing out another novel, namely Rituals (Rituelen), in 1980 which launched his career as an internationally acclaimed novelist. Best known among his fiction are A Song of Truth and Semblance (Een lied van schijn en wezen: 1981), The Following Story (Het volgende verhaal: 1991), All Souls' Day (Allerzielen: 1998), Lost Paradise (Paradijs verloren: 2004), and The Foxes Come at Night (’s Nachts komen de vossen: 2009). Cees Nooteboom lives with his wife alternately in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and on Minorca, Spain.
The man who tells The Following Story is Herman Mussert, a former Latin teacher at a Dutch high school who for the past twenty years has been writing Dr Strabo’s popular travel guides to make a living. One morning he wakes up in a hotel room in Lisbon although the last thing he remembers of the night before is lying in his bed in Amsterdam and looking at a picture of our solar system taken by space probe Voyager. He suspects that he might be dead, but dismisses the idea because he hasn’t stopped thinking. Moreover he can move around and look at himself in the mirror. The room is part of the most impressive time of his life which ended in his dismissal from school. On Herman Mussert’s way to the harbour along well-known streets and places, his memory takes him back to the 1960s when he was in Lisbon with the only woman whom he ever really loved although she, a beautiful and matter-of-fact biology teacher from his high school, began the affair with him, an ugly gnome nicknamed Sokrates by his students, above all to regain the attention of her husband who was the handsome, poetry-writing Dutch teacher and basketball coach involved with the darling student of virtually everybody in school. Herman Mussert too was rather fond of the girl because she was charming and gifted, but their relationship never was anything but the platonic and innocent. In the harbour of Lisbon he embarks on a vessel leaving for South America. The other passengers onboard are a priest, a pilot, a boy, a journalist, a scholar, and a mysterious woman. Before long one after the after tells his or her story until it’s the Latin teacher’s turn at last.
The Following Story is a very philosophical first-person narration and the reader finds out after a while that it is actually addressed to a third person whose identity, however, isn’t revealed before the end of the novelette. Cees Nooteboom skilfully interweaved the frame plot set in the present with the plot of a more or less unspectacular romance which is set in the past. It soon becomes clear that Herman Mussert as a classicist to the backbone never really fitted into his time, a fact which is emphasised by his passion for Latin writers and his need to pen boring travel guides as well as by the differences of personality between him and his lover. The world of the Latin teacher is permeated with the deep thoughts which authors like Herodotus, Ovid and Tacitus expressed in elaborate style, while the biology teacher is interested above all in science, ie in the crude facts of life. Opposites attract, but aren’t easily reconciled or even understood in real life or in a novel. It’s the merit of Cees Nooteboom to have succeeded in portraying both characters in an authentic way and in appropriate language. As befits the story, there are poetic as well as prosaic passages, not to mention that the author’s style is very engaging and clear altogether. In addition, he manages to captivate the reader with an elaborate plot that answers many questions, but keeps the central one open until the last page.
For those who are a bit slow in the uptake or sloppy readers on the internet (like I am), I’ll put it point clear: I loved The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom. I’m sure that everybody who enjoys the philosophical like I do, will love this novelette too.