Home > 1980, Dutch Literature, Nooteboom Cees, Novel > Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

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

  1. June 29, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I am so glad you liked this so much. I discovered Cees Nooteboom myself this month and I cannot wait to read Rituals especially.


    • June 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks. I’ve added the link to Winstondad’s blog.


  2. June 29, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    This sounds excellent, and with the first quote I was hooked too. Now to see if I can find it….


    • June 29, 2011 at 9:16 pm

      I think you’ll like it.


  3. June 30, 2011 at 2:12 am

    I found a copy, and quite cheap too. You never know sometimes with these titles…

    I don’t know quite why but the book reminds me of Barney’s Version (I just watched the film–but there is a book of it too written by Mordecai Richler which I haven’t read yet). The main character is a total disaster with women, and the film has flashbacks of his life and his three wives. Have you seen it?


    • June 30, 2011 at 7:45 am

      I had seen it was available in English. I’ll try to include American or English covers in my posts. I think it’s interesting to see how differently the books can be marketed.

      I haven’t seen Barney’s Version, so I can’t tell.


  4. June 30, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I’ve not read this author before, Bookaroundthecorner (er, Emma!), but you certainly make me want to. Do you think most misanthropists also hate themselves or just this character? I’d never really thought of that possibility before, but that’s an interesting perspective on the matter.


    • June 30, 2011 at 8:00 am

      He’s really worth reading. I wonder how it escaped my notice, just like Hella S Haasse, not that I like her as much as Nooteboom. It’s just that they have many books translated into French, I’d expect to have seen them in bookstores or magasines. But no.

      I’m French so when I hear misanthropist, I think Molière. Can’t help it I’m afraid. You’re asking a good question. I think you need to like yourself to be really at ease with other people but I don’t think misanthropes necessarily hate themselves. Some probably do and some probably have such a high opinion of themselves that they don’t want to mix into the vulgar mob. What Arnold Taads and Alceste (Molière’s Misanthrope) have in common is their refusal to abide by social rules. They don’t want to compromise and they want to speak and act just as they please. Alceste doesn’t want to respect social rules and wants to say aloud everything he wants. Arnold Taads doesn’t fit in society and decides to live alone rather than adjust to the world he lives in. I’d say that above all, Arnold hates himself. As a consequence, he has difficulty to interact with other people. As another consequence, he’s a social outcast. His solution to the problem is to live by himself with his dog and despise his fellow citizens.


  5. June 30, 2011 at 6:00 am

    I said on my blog, I’m glad you liked it and feel, like me, he is one of those authors one would like to read everything, or at least a lot of.
    I still have my problems with the comparison with Djian. Although I like Djian, they are, for me, not in the same league. Nooteboom is more subtle and complex. But I have not read Impardonnables.
    I guess to a certain extent we also read the same books in a different way. All those parts tied to the rituals, the spirituality, Japan, stayed in my mind, I forgot a lot of the rest.
    It is one of the few books I will re-read.


    • June 30, 2011 at 8:23 am

      Djian and Nooteboom are in the same league for me. Djian’s complexity is less apparent than Nooteboom’s but it’s still there. Not in Doggy Bag, of course, but this series in its form aims at mimicking TV shows. I understand why you don’t see what brought them together in my mind. You were more interested in the Japanese spirituals elements of Rituals, but it’s only the last third of the book. What Inni and Djian’s characters have in common (Dan from Echine, Francis from Impardonnables) is a chameleon way to adapt to life and accept other people the way they are. I’m curious to read Guy’s review when he comes to it. He has read Impardonnables too.

      The big difference between Nooteboom and Djian is that Djian isn’t interested in religion or at least it’s not a theme he develops in his novels.
      I didn’t write a lot about the comparison between Catholic rituals and Japanese ones simply because I lack the English words for it. I thought it was an unexpected comparison and at the same time it made a lot of sense. Inni’s been brought up with a strong Catholic education. I’m not religious but I was raised a Catholic. Apart from Catholic schools, I got the whole package (mandatory Sunday mass, catechism at school and during free time…) I understand how Inni’s mind got imprinted with these rituals and how they stayed with him even after becoming an atheist. When I watched Des Hommes et des Dieux, I realised I still knew prayers and paragraphs of the mass by heart years later. Just like I remembered very well the extract of the mass included in Nooteboom’s novel.


  6. June 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    It was the religious/spiritual aspect that fascinated me the most, I admit. I grew up as a Catholic but am now practicing some Eastern religion blend thing. I’m not much attracted by Zen Buddhism though. In any case, it shows how complex a writer he is and that one can really read books in quite different ways.


  1. July 25, 2011 at 10:49 am
  2. July 17, 2013 at 10:31 am

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