"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 5, 2012

"Roads to Berlin" (2012) by Cees Nooteboom (Book Review, Travel Writing)

Cees Nooteboom (1933) is a Dutch poet, novelist and above all, writer about travel and culture, whose name regularly turns up on those mysterious short lists of Nobel Prize contenders. Nooteboom has written impressive novels as Rituals (1980), All Souls Day (1998) and Lost Paradise (2004). His travel writing is always of a philosophical and historical bent and has appeared in such collections as Roads to Santiago (1997) and Nomad's Hotel (2009).

Nooteboom's work has been extensively translated into English, Spanish (the country of his residence), and above all, German - in Germany, even his collected works have been published and one could safely say that he is more popular in that country than in The Netherlands. The reason is probably that Nooteboom's work has an "idealistic" bent, it is full of whirling thoughts, and his sentences also are rather long - general characteristics of German prose. Nooteboom clearly is deeply interested in German culture.

That doesn't mean in the least Nooteboom is German - he is much more than Dutch or German or Spanish or whatever nationality, he is an all too rare example of a pan-European intellectual (another reason why he deserved the Nobel Prize, the one given to the European Union). Nooteboom is a modern Renaissance man, with a huge field of interests ranging from philosophy and political thought, to contemporary art, literature, music, architecture and almost anything else. I always feel envious when in his essays he casually scatters names of famous thinkers and writers, while it is clear that he has also actually found the time to read and study them.

[Cees Nooteboom - photo Wikipedia]

Roads to Berlin (subtitle: "Detours & Riddles in the Lands & History of Germany") is a collection of various pieces written about Germany between 1963 and 2012, with an emphasis on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and a period when Nooteboom actually was living in that city. In this way he became witness to one of the most significant turning points in 20th century history, mapping the changing moods of the country, describing the pivotal events of Germany's difficult passage to reunification. We are lucky with this observer, the most informed and perceptive one you could wish for.

[The end of the Wall in 1989 - photo Wikipedia]

Nooteboom always sees present events through the lens of history. He writes a beautiful prose, poetical and whimsical. He is both personal and objective. Besides the Wall which is viewed from countless perspectives (including that of the Wall which is no longer there), there are long discussions about Germany's history, its influence on its neighbors, and the question which was deliberated in 1989 whether the Germans themselves or its neighbors wanted Germany to be again reunited and become a large force in Europe. Of course this is what has happened, and now Europe itself is unthinkable without Germany.

But Nooteboom also shows us other interesting vistas: mythical, such as the huge statue of the legendary German tribal leader Hermann in the Teutoburg Forest, or  the grotto of Emperor Barbarossa; political, as Nuremberg with Hitler's Walhalla and Nazi Party rally grounds, or the bridge into Poland over the Oder; literary, as the Brocken of Walpurgisnacht fame in the Harz mountains and Goethe's Weimar; weird, as the East-German Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany, or an exhibition of the disintegrating aeroplanes built by the artist Anselm Kiefer, or a rhapsody on German eagles.

Most impressive, too, are the two intermezzo's about Munich, where the author falls in love with "Justice," a stone woman holding a Sword and a Book on the Max II monument, and later experiences an apocalyptic Liebestraum about a golden angel...
Published in English by Maclehose Press, London. Website of Cees Nooteboom (in English).