Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cees Nooteboom

After Infinite Jest, I had my eyes set on a shorter novel. A friend recommended the work of Cees Nooteboom, whose fiction has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the English-speaking world. 

On that friend's suggestion, I took up Rituals, an odd little book written in Dutch, and awarded the Pegasus Prize in 1982. The novella is divided in three: that much I know. But beyond that, I must confess, I found myself perplexed.  

There's certainly a preoccupation here with the human capacity for belief. Nooteboom seems mystified that we'd have progressed this far, only to replace that old medieval cloak with other forms of irrationality (be they political, religious, or spiritual). 

Nooteboom reaffirms this point throughout: his characters are isolated, trapped by the beliefs they've willingly adopted. They claim transcendence, but Nooteboom questions this. What they're feeling, he seems to argue, is loneliness. 

In contrast to this aestheticism, this highly regimented sense of 'ritual,' Nooteboom introduces Inni Winthrop, a character defined less by his happiness than by his freedom. Winthrop has the capacity to float, and Nooteboom's prose mirror this: he hops from one encounter to the next, unencumbered by belief, free of anguish. 

I suppose if Nooteboom relates to any of the characters in the book, it's Winthrop -- but only because he seems horrified (genuinely horrified) by the human capacity for self-flagellation, for restricting our movement or emotional outlook because of its potential to contradict a system of thought. 

It's in that sense that Nooteboom seems to argue for a sort of moderation, and for systems of belief that celebrate the human capacity for social interaction. The body, especially, is not a source of sin: it is, in this novella at least, the basis for good. 

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