Dutch courage in the face of death


FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews The Foxes Come at NightBy Cees Nooteboom, translated by Ina Rilke MacLehose Press, 141pp, £12

THE TITLE ALONE beguiles, never mind that the author is the Dutch original Cees Nooteboom, a determinedly European writer whose masters are Nabokov and Calvino, although he is very much his own man. This philosophical book characteristically defies the rules and is concerned with variations on the theme of death and dying. But it is not depressing; Nooteboom possesses a wry sensitivity and looks at life with an instinctive jauntiness. Little is needed to prompt Nooteboom’s narrator towards reflection, and there is a great deal of it in this sequence of interlinking stories.

Photographs dominate the book. Whether framed on tables or hanging on walls these pictures remind the narrator of people, most of whom are dead, yet their presence remains, if only in the context of the moment in which the picture was taken. In one of the photographs the narrator is looking at a group that includes him. Each person had a subsequent story, some of them tragic. But this book is not about lamentations.

“People you mourn when they die, but also, and that’s the crux, prior to their demise, people you find yourself grieving or even when you are still laughing about them. Vulnerable souls, wounded simpletons, women defying their lot, knights of the sad countenance, men surrounded by a nimbus of disaster.” A tone of gentle irony ebbs and flows through the work; Nooteboom has been well served by the translator Ina Rilke.

In all but two of the eight pieces a male narrator guides the way through observations that are random but precise. The opening sequence is particularly good: not only does Nooteboom begin the book in the third person, but the character is an older man, an art historian caught in the act of remembering. He is examining a photograph taken 40 years earlier, and he has returned to Venice, where he and a young woman once posed together as a stranger held the camera. This is no idle musing: this is active retrieval. The woman has since died.

“What that snapshot really conveyed, he reflected, more as a statement of fact than out of a sense of tragedy or self-pity, was that it was time he started thinking about his own exit.” The story stands alone as a study of ambiguity, and it is this ambiguity that counters, even overpowers, any lingering regret. Nooteboom is a writer who consistently bends fiction into a dense, fluid and innovative discourse. Even at his most profound he retains humour that moves between the deadpan and the discreetly outrageous.

Death is the theme, but he also places northern European characters in Mediterranean locations. If his creations are outsiders it is because humans tend to be outsiders. Along with thoughts of death and ageing is the notion of restlessness and flight. These people, such as Heinz, the central figure in the third sequence, which follows one man through the maze of distorted mirrors that sums up his experience and ultimately his life, preoccupies the narrator, who decides language “is something you inherit, it’s never just you doing the talking, which helps when you’re pretending”.

Heinz looks at a photo and wonders if he should pretend he knows nothing about the people gathered in it, when in fact he could tell each of their stories. “I know plenty,” he writes. Heinz is a genial host with a share of problems that he can deal with as long as he has an audience at his holiday house in Liguria. But suddenly he is alone, “staring out to sea for days on end”.

He ends up in England near the home of his second wife, who had left him. He dies there, and the narrator considers the facts, because this is what a Nooteboom narrator does. “I could imagine the scene. English vicar, English hymns, or how a wayward Dutchman joins the English dead.”

For Nooteboom the dead are a lively bunch, and however unlikely a comparison it may seem, he shares something of the vision displayed by the Tim Burton film Corpse Bride. This is further developed when, following the narrator’s meditation on Paula, a woman he once loved and who died in a hotel fire, the woman then takes up the story with the all-knowing eyes of death. Aware he is thinking of her, she responds, “You called me and here I am . . . I am no longer a body, not any more.”

What could appear fanciful in the hands of a clumsier writer is given a subtle pathos by Nooteboom the philosopher: “I am completely alone,” says Paula, “like all the other dead whom I can neither see nor hear. I am my memories . . . Only when they are gone will I be truly dead . . . I have died, but there is life in me yet . . . Perhaps it is true that we hover around for a bit in places familiar to us.”

Nooteboom is a literary institution in the Netherlands. He first reached an English-language audience with the 1993 translation of his elegiac meditation The Following Story, in which he explored the pain of memory with a seductive lightness of touch. It was subsequently shortlisted for the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. He is a thinker as much as a storyteller and brings astute insight to his evocation of character and imaginative intellectualism. It may surprise, but there are flashes here and there throughout this playful, deadly serious and achingly real book of William Trevor. But then Nooteboom, whose other work includes Ritual(1980) and Lost Paradise(2007), is full of surprises and makes every word, every observation, not only count but also linger.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times