Ask a Dutch person and a non-Dutch person to name a famous Dutch writer, and there’s big chance the latter will come up with Nooteboom, while the former mightn’t think of him at all. Perhaps this is because Nooteboom’s work has been translated into many languages all over the world. But happily, in November Cees Nooteboom (76) won what he deserves for his oeuvre: the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (a prestigious Dutch literature prize).
Reason enough to pick up one of his first books, Rituals (1980). This novel is a classic, seen as the heart of his oeuvre, won many prizes and – last but not least – was an important factor in the international breakthrough of Dutch literature.
Rituals is about three decades of the life of a wealthy 40-year-old man, Inni Wintrop. The book begins with his failed suicide, which might also explain his understanding for two important men he later meets. First, Wintrop gets to know Arnold Taads, the loneliest man he has ever known. In the life of Taads, time is the father of all things. Ten minutes early for an appointment with Arnold means waiting ten minutes at his door.
Later, Wintrop accidentally makes the acquaintance of Philip Taads, Arnold’s abandoned son, who is even lonelier than his father. He lives like a monk and specialises in Oriental art. The two are, both in their own way, ruled by the rituals they live by. Their hatred for human life and for themselves is so extreme that they want to be freed of it. They intend to vanish from this world altogether – and finally they both do.
Wintrop is rich and urbane, but on the other hand has ‘weird’ friends. Once his interest in someone is sparked, he doesn’t let go. He observes his own life and everything that happens in it as an onlooker. He doesn’t like psychology, but while philosophising – which he does a lot, but not very consistently – he realises he is also using psychology. The contradictions in his character make him fascinating.
Nooteboom’s use of language is sparkling and supple. His wisdom comes to the fore in the depictions of the characters and the commentary about them by the all-knowing writer. The way in which he relativises melancholy is refreshing and makes painful topics bearable and sometimes even tragicomic.