Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals (1980; 1983)

Although I had picked up the author’s works throughout the years, it was Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Cees Nooteboom that firmly nudged his Rituals onto my reading list for Iris’ DutchLit Fortnight this year. (The interview is available in podcast here.)

Rituals Nooteboom DutchLit Fortnight

1980; HBJ, Translated Adrienne Dixon, 1983

Rituals is a slim novel and, as such, it sparked trepidation in me immediately.

(I have a theory that the skinniest literary novels take the longest to read. Many times while Rituals was on my stack, I wondered whether I would finish Charles Palliser’s 788-page-long The Quincunx before I left Nooteboom’s Amsterdam behind.)

A bad attitude is behind many a disappointing read, and false-starting on this novel twice before making it past page ten is wholly my responsibility as a reader.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that Inni makes for good company regardless of one’s outlook.

This doesn’t make the read a disappointment, but it leaves a sense of disjointedness for even an enthusiastic reader.

For Inni Wintrop is unhappy.

In the 1953 segment of the novel (which is actually the middle segment of the work), readers learn that Inni has long thought life unbearable, or nearly so.

Unbearably absurd.

“There were days, thought Inni Wintrop, when it seemed as if a recurrent, fairly absurd phenomenon were trying to prove that the world is an absurdity that can best be approached with nonchalance, because life would otherwise become unbearable.”

Nonchalance. Inattention. Suffering.

Ten years later, Inni has strayed into the irrevocable.

“Without being able to define it at the time, Inni knew he was here confronted with the smell of death, a realm from which one cannot return if, perhaps by accident or simply through inattention, one has strayed into it.”

But this is the Intermezzo, in 1963, the novel’s first segment.

Readers have not formally been warned that Inni has adopted an attitude of nonchalance.

And, yet, through his fragmented love relationship, readers become acutely aware of his disappointments and losses.

“There are many forms of suffering, and although Inni, in retrospect, must have had his fair share of unhappiness, it is nevertheless rare for the raw state of suffering to be revealed to someone of his age as clearly as happened now. Suffering, not as an event, but as a deliberately sought, irrevocable punishment. Irrevocable because no other people were involved in it, because this man who was marching along beside him so buoyantly and robustly, like an athlete who has beaten the world record, appeared to suffer from himself, in himself.”

A man who suffers from himself. Yes, absurd, perhaps. But not unanswerable.

“Mysticism has nothing to do with any particular religion. Mystics are almost always regarded with suspicion by the official churches. It is a rare opportunity for man to lose himself. If there ever comes a time when there are no longer any religions, there will still be mystics. Mysticism is a faculty of the soul, not of a system. Or did you think that nothingness is not a mystical concept?”

Such a slim novel, but room to discuss religion and nothingness, mysticism and art.

“What remained was a work of art, for just above head level on the windowpane, there appeared in street dirt and dust the perfect shape of a dove in flight, feather by feather, with outspread wings. The crash had imprinted the dove’s incorporeal double on the glass.”

The trio of doves would be stuff enough to get the most reluctant bookgroup chatting, but there is much more to Rituals than outlines of nothingness.

“What a strange animal was man, always somehow needing objects, “made” things with which to facilitate his journey to the twilit realms of the higher world.”

A tea ceremony and a farewell. Imaginary houses and women. Real deaths and disappointments. The world of Rituals is layered and complex, lonely and discomfiting.

“The universe could do quite well without this world, and the world could do quite well without people, things, and Inni Wintrop for a while. But…he did not mind waiting for events to take their course. After all, it might take another thousand years. He had a first-class seat in the auditorium, and the play was by turns horrific, lyrical, comic, tender, cruel, and obscene.”

Horrific, lyrical, comic, tender, cruel and obscene: Rituals contains, arguably, each of these elements. And because Inni is not the most companionate hero, I was most pleased to make his acquaintance in the company of other readers celebrating Dutch Lit Fortnight.

Have you read Cees Nooteboom? Or joined in a community reading event that stretched your comfort levels lately?

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2 comments to Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals (1980; 1983)

  • I’ve not yet read Cees Nooteboom but I’m hoping to one of these days. I suspect this one would not be the first one to try.

    • The interview considered his non-fiction writing as well; perhaps that would have made a better place to start, but I do think my issue was largely timing. Generally I have no need to “like” the characters I’m reading about, but I think the overly humid day which I spent with Inni was perhaps better suited to re-reading a Barbara Pym novel, as I was quite likely beyond-irritable to begin with.

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