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Saturday, 3 March 2007

Review: All Souls Day, Cees Nooteboom (2001)

Amid the clang and whisper of the present, between the words of people we meet every day or every week, there rushes like a phantom the echo of the past. And that echo is answered by the actions of living people, who commit acts of violence every bit as deadly and destructive as a war between rival kingdoms of a bygone age.

Berlin is no longer divided, politically at least. The signs of the decades-long schism are everywhere felt and, now, the euphoria of its ending has dissipated itself in a million tiny moments. A foreigner with a camera, a Dutchman, walks the winter streets intent on a private project.

Arthur's wife and son died in a plane crash ten years earlier and, now, the one who is left behind makes his home in a city that has a clouded past. To sustain himself, he visits his friends, artists and writers and academics, people like himself who can enjoy the pleasures of the table but who aspire to higher truths. They seem to thrive in Berlin. Perhaps he cannot find such congenial company in Holland. Perhaps he feels that he has no real home anymore.

His private project, beyond the contract work he performs for pecunariy gain, is of long standing. He is in the habit of taking his movie camera with him wherever he goes. You never know when you will see something that can be added to the files.

Into his world arrives a woman, also a stranger, also Dutch (although he doesn't know that at first). He also doesn't know that, like him, she has a violent past. They are flung together and make love, wordlessly, in his flat or hers. Arthur seems changed, to his friends. She has changed him and they are worried about him.

They continue making meaning out of the chaos of life while he plunges into an affair the meaning of which he cannot fathom.

Between chapters we are addressed by unnamed beings who seem to be outside of history. They are beyond mere physical violence and political struggle. They comment on Arthur's life and the lives of his friends, but they never reach into them. Cold and distant, they trace delicate patterns on the surface of the narrative. While they seem to understand more than we ever could, they cannot fathom the pathos and passion of human existence.

But they also are part of Nooteboom's grand plan. This is a meditative work. Complex and far-reaching, it tosses complicated concepts about history and politics into the air and predicts where they will fall. Clearly some kind of masterpiece, All Souls Day eschews the simple formulas of romance and comedy while it coopts well-used tropes into its fantastic fabric.

The clues that Elik Oranje places before Arthur's nose are as mysterious as the finality of his trajectory as he drives through Spain in his Volvo Amazon, turning west, then north. With a shiver, we realise that the mystery is part of Nooteboom's plan for this novel. Inscrutable as the beings who pepper the narrative with their whistful pronouncements, the author has the last laugh. Leaves us yearning.

And perhaps that's the point. As the earth spins and man brings pain on his fellow mortals, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. But there is an end to this book. Once you've seen it, you'll probably always go looking for it in other books too.

Highly recommended.

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