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Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

June 29, 2011 13 comments

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. 1980.

On the day that Inni Wintrop committed suicide, Philips shares stood at 149.60. The Amserdam Bank closing rate was 375, and Shopping Union had slipped to 141.50. Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases. And that was what he remembered, if he remembered anything: the markets reports, and that the moon shone on the canal and that he had hanged himself in the bathroom because he had predicted, in his own horoscope in Het Parool, that his wife would run off with another man and that he, a Leo, would then commit suicide. It was a perfect prediction. Zita ran off with an Italian, and Inni committed suicide. He had read a poem by Bloem, too, but he could not remember which one. The dog, arrogant beast, let him down on this point.

This is the opening paragraph of Rituals. I was hooked.  

Inni Wintrop is the main character of Rituals. He walks his nonchalance on leash and through his existence and we, reader meet him at three turning-points of his life: first in 1963 when his wife Zita leaves him, second in 1953 flash-back when he first meets Arnold Taads and in 1973 when Philip Taads, Arnold’s son crosses his life. The events are described through Inni’s point of view, not that there are many events in this novel. 

The rituals evoked in the book title are the ones we attend or create for ourselves to make our life bearable. Inni’s first rituals were the ones of Catholic mass until they were damaged by an accident: the priest had a stroke and broke the smoothness of the ritual forever. Inni has a compulsory relationship with women. After his unforgettable sex episode with Petra in 1953, he will try to find that moment again, meeting prostitutes and having flings whenever he can, married or not married. It becomes one of his rituals too.

Arnold Taads is a misanthropist who hates himself. Life is unbearable to him and he divides his days into defined periods of times to cut his suffering in manageable slices of time. He has his own rituals: time to smoke a cigarette, time to read, time to walk the dog…He enjoys solitude and spends his winters in a remote chalet in the Swiss Alps. He needs to walk during six hours in the snow to get some food.

Philip Taads lives a contemplative life in a monastic room of a poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam. His mother was Indonesian. (And there we’re back to the two other Dutch books I’ve read this month) He is attracted to traditional Japanese culture and his ritual is the Japanese tea ceremony. To Inni, this ceremony looks a lot like a part of the Catholic worship. 

The author explores loneliness through the Taads and also the way we have no other choice than to surrender to social rules or live apart in seclusion.   

When reading Nooteboom, I imagined life as an untameable flow. Sometimes Inni manages to swim; sometimes he swallows water and most of the time he takes women as lifebuoys. He hangs onto them. All the images that come to my mind are linked to water, I don’t know why. Rituals is also a novel about memories, in a Proustian sense. Memory isn’t a straight path with defined mileposts. It’s a patchwork of random images and we fail to understand why that event, sensation, image, word stuck into our memory when others flew away, evading us. 

How it was that he could remember poems by heart was a mystery to him, and he often reflected that perhaps he would have done better to learn his life by heart so that in these recurring nocturnal last moments he could at least have watched an orderly film instead of all those loose fragments without a cohesion you might have expected of a life just ended. Perhaps the daily death was so mensely sad because no one was really dying at all. There were only a number of barely connected snapshots at which nobody would ever look.

Nooteboom reminded me of Philippe Djian in Impardonnables. Rituals has the same atmosphere of inevitable catastrophes. Side characters are weird. Like in most novels by Djian, the narrator is also a man who doesn’t know the meaning of his life. He lives from one day to another, selling art pieces, writing horoscopes. He has the same kind of dependence on women than men in Djian’s universe. The sense of humour also recalled me Djian. The scene when Inni is circumcised (he was an adult then, and it was rather painful to read, even for a woman) could have been written by Djian.

Apparently, Inni is a silly name for a Dutchman. To the Frenchwoman I am, it doesn’t sound stranger than Cees, the author’s first name. So I’ll be grateful if someone can decipher for me why Inni is a ridiculous name.  

Rituals is a book to read slowly, in a quiet room, to savour the taste of the words, to hear the music of the phrases and feel the waves of Nooteboom’s thoughts. There is a persistent sadness in that novel, nagging, slipping under the reader’s skin like a sneaking snake. It us one of the best books I’ve read this year so far. I wonder if Inni and Cees are the same person. In 1973, Inni is 40, just like Cees. He has received a strong Catholic education, Nooteboom attended several Catholic schools. They both love poetry.

Like Caroline, Rituals only leaves me hungry to read his other works. Philippe Noble translated Rituelen into French and I think he’s a brilliant translator. His Max Havelaar was already really good and his translation of Nooteboom flows without effort. Btw, I read the first pages of the English translation on Amazon. This is where I took the quotes in English. (Funny, the quote by Theodor Fontane isn’t translated in the English edition whereas it is in the French one.) 

This was my last Dutch book of the month, part of Iris’s month of Dutch Literature.

PS: Caroline reviewe Mokusai! by Cees Nooteboom here

If you want to know more, Stu from Winstondad’s blog  interviewed Cees Nooteboom. Click here

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