All roads lead to the centre


CEES Nooteboom, a 68 year old native of over populated Holland, a scholarly writer of poetic sensitivity, perennially escapes from what he calls the snares and entanglements of the world" to spend months as a pilgrim to nowhere" in "the emptiest country in Europe".

Spain is the place and Spanish the state of mind in which, during the past forty years, he has found relief from the stress of European modernity. The subtitle of this charming memoir of solitary time travel off beaten tracks far from Mediterranean resorts gives advance notice of his fondness for obliquity. He has written an amorous account of "Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain".

He was educated by Franciscan and Augustinian monks. "Many years ago" he recalls, in a different and yet the same life, I wanted to be a Trappist monk." When he announced his ambition to the abbot of the hermitage of Achel, the abbot handed him a biography of Abelard, in Latin, a Latin dictionary, a notepad and a pencil, and said: "Why don't you begin by translating this text. When you've finished we'll talk again."

Young Cees got only to page 10. However the allure of monasticism persists.

I still visit the occasional abbey when I am on my travels (Trappist, Benedictine, Carthusian). So they still exist, although they have become almost invisible nowadays and are rarely sighted in the wild."

Nooteboom may sometimes feel like a pilgrim without a defined destination, but he is aware of the pilgrimage of countless others before him on the roads to La Cloria, Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral dedicated to St James, the patron saint of Spain. It is situated in Galicia, Spain's northwesternmost province, as far as it is possible to go from the most populous tourist beaches. Nooteboom has driven almost everywhere in the country's hinterland; but, no matter how haphazardly circuitous his journeys, all roads somehow lead eventually to Santiago and give this loosely ordered memoir a certain significant focus.

"Women and friends have vanished from my life," he writes, "but a country does not run away so easily." Constancy makes up for all the country's quirks and foibles. He acknowledges all its flaws; for him, apparently, they add to its fascination:

Spain is brutish, anarchic, egocentric, cruel. Spain is prepared to face disaster on a whim, she is chaotic, dreamy, irrational. Spain conquered the world and then did not know what to do with it, she harks back to her Medieval, Arab, Jewish and Christian past and sits there impassively like a continent that is appended to Europe and yet is not Europe, with her obdurate towns studding those limitless empty landscapes. Those who know only the beaten track do not know Spain. Those who have not roamed the labyrinthine complexity of her history do not know what they are travelling through. It is the love of a lifetime, the amazement is never ending.

For him, Spain is she, not it. He is enthralled, but manages to describe his enthraldom calmly, in rational terms. He enables the reader to sympathise with him and, by the time he has finished, even to envy him his expert connoisseurhip of bleak obscurity out of season. Regard him, a lone outsider in a dismal cafe in San Sebastian, as happy as Prufrock:

I read my paper and look at the palm trees all tied up for the winter and the empty Sunday morning pavements and wish that my entire life were a provincial Spanish Sunday morning, and I the sort of man who belonged there.

This is a dense book, geographically and chronologically, constructed in spirals rather than straight lines. There is no point in undertaking to read it if you are in a hurry to learn about Spain. However, if you adjust to Nooteboom's leisurely pace and prepare yourself for diversion after diversion, you will gradually find yourself immersed in the spirit of Iberia.

While appreciating the ruined grandeur of castles, fortresses and monasteries, Nooteboom is a keen, closeup observer of the smallest details of architecture, sculpture, painting and literature. While most Spaniards rest behind the closed shutters of siesta, he persuades the custodians of remote churches to unlock their doors. He explores obscure bookshops. He analyses the works of painters such as Valesquez so minutely that he seems to know what their subjects are thinking. He stares at stone figures, gawping like the village idiot for hours on end, like someone who longs to be taken by the hand, petrified, turned around, changed into a dwarf, lifted up and placed among the others, to have perched there for the past eight centuries like the rest of them, a carving on a church portal in a forgotten Spanish village visited by no one.

The more he finds in Spain, the more remains to be found; the more he learns, the more remains to be learned:

...then one day you find yourself hunched over a jigsaw puzzle that extends far beyond the confines of the room you are in; you are surrounded by dozens of other rooms in which yet more pieces of the puzzle are stored in cupboards, boxes, wicker trays.

Cees Nooteboom is an ardent admirer of Jorge Luis Borges. Of course!