"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 31, 2014

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Rituals is a beautiful lyrical novel, full of the intertextuality of postmodernism, of symbols and metaphors, and composed like a delicate clockwork. Nooteboom does not write straight realistic prose, his novels are always imbued with philosophy and mythology. Rituals is concerned with the problem of time as both a linear and a cyclical movement.

On the surface, Rituals is the story of Inni Wintrop, amateur-art dealer and observer of life, the alter ego of Nooteboom, and his meeting with father and son Anton and Philip Taads. Inni is introduced in a short section placed in 1963; then we get his meeting with the older Taads in 1953, followed by his coming across the younger Taads in 1973.

[Cees Nooteboom - Wikipedia]

Rituals starts in the 1960s in Amsterdam, in a world of total freedom, caused by the absence of God, which is symbolized in the novel by the death or absence of fathers. Inni has lost his father to a German bomb during the war.

The thirty-year old Inni Wintrop (the first name is short for Inigo (Jones), after the famous 17th c. English architect), who leads a comfortable but rather chaotic and aimless life, looses Zita, his girlfriend from Namibia. Although he is very much in love with Zita, he cannot keep his hands off other women. Zita leaves him after he comes home covered in the silver paint that came off the hair of a bar girl during impulsive lovemaking. Inni gets drunk and even tries suicide, but of course - being unstructured in everything he does - he bungles it.

The next part is set in 1953, when Inni is in his early twenties. We meet Arnold Taads, a man whose whole life is rigidly determined by the clock. He makes a fetish of schedules, so that life repeats exactly the same pattern each day. He is an atheist - he talks about existentialist philosophy to Inni - but in the absence of a god, he has constructed a life ruled by time. Each unit of time and the task assigned to it becomes something absolute. This makes Arnold a recluse because his laws do not allow the uncertainties of others. He spends a large part of the year in a cottage high in the Swiss Alps, where he finally meets a death he has foretold himself.

[Ritual of the Catholic Mass - Wikipedia]

In this section of the novel, Arnold also visits his aunt, who lives in the southern, Catholic part of the Netherlands. He attends the ritual of a mass but also discovers the ritual of love through the housemaid, Petra, the sexy rock on which he builds his church of love. Part of their lovemaking mimics the performance of the mass.

In the third section, it is 1973 and Inni is in early middle age, wiser, but still as interested as ever in new experiences for which he roams the streets of Amsterdam. By chance, one day he meets a man who proves to be Philip, the son of Arnold Taads and an Indonesian mother. Philip is a recluse like his father, but in contrast to modern philosophy, he is in the grip of Eastern philosophy, such as Zen and Daoism. He is also fascinated by the tea ceremony and visits an oriental antiques shop to buy an expensive tea bowl of Raku ware. He has also read Kawabata's novel Thousand Cranes in which the tea ceremony plays a large role. In the end, he will perform a tea ceremony using the Raku bowl - and soon after that, commit suicide. Just like his father, he has filled his life with strict rituals and a monasterial style of life.

For many people, the chaos and abundance of freedom resulting from the absence of God, are difficult to cope with, so they flee into other forms of absolutism - which may lead to death. Inni survives, because as a skeptic he leads an unstructured life.

[Raku ware tea bowl - Wikipedia]

But even as a skeptic Inni has his rituals - we may call these perhaps "positive rituals" as being devoid of absolutism, they lead to life rather than death. For Inni Wintrop, the viewing of an object of art is the ritual par excellence to give structure to the personal past and integrate his life into the tradition of Western culture. In this way, the individual life is given meaning as a link in a supra-individual continuity. Although he also sees a world without God, in this last aspect, Nooteboom is more positive than the absolute nihilist Willem Frederik Hermans.

This also connects Rituals to the travel writings of Cees Nooteboom, such as Return to Berlin or Roads to Santiago, where the author not only evokes landscapes and cityscapes, but also reports about his extensive visits to museums and exhibitions. It is the submission to art that enables him to be temporarily released from skepticism and detachment.

But that fundamental skepticism is important as a basic attitude of life, and a defense against absolutism. In Rituals, Inni is copiously endowed with it, in contrast to both father and son Taads, who become the victims of their absolutism.

And finally there is one more "ritual:" the ritual of reading, which gives the reader insight into all these problems...

[Ritual of the tea ceremony - Wikipedia]

I would like to add that Rituals is also interesting as a skeptical-melancholic image of the years between 1953 and 1973, the years from Sartre to Zen. In the second part, we still are faced with the strictness of the 1950s and the heaviness of conformist religion; in the parts about the 1960s and 1970s we experience the free Amsterdam of the hippies and flower power. This is another link to Nooteboom's travel reports, such as Return to Berlin, where certain times and places are vividly evocated.

On top of that, as an "idea book," Rituals is full of snippets of wisdom and quotable sentences. To give one example: "Memory is like a dog that lies down where it likes."

Cees Nooteboom (1933) debuted in 1955 with the novel Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others) and has since built up an imposing oeuvre of novels, poetry and travelogues. Among his other books are the travelogues Berlijnse notities (Return to Berlin, 1990), which won him the German "3rd of October Literature Prize," and De omweg naar Santiago (Roads to Santiago, 1992), and the novels Allerzielen (All Souls' Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Lost Paradise, 2004).

In 2004 Cees Nooteboom was awarded the prestigious P.C. Hooft Prize for his entire oeuvre. This being said, he is more popular as a "European writer" abroad - especially in Germany - than in the Netherlands, where critics seem to have difficulty understanding his work. This may be due to the erudition, the vast knowledge of European art and history, that fills his books to the brim, as well as to Nooteboom's cosmopolitism, which is not seen favorably in the small-minded nationalistic atmosphere that has gripped much of the Netherlands in the 21st century. Dutch critics, who suffer from their low level of education, apparently see Nooteboom's erudition as a form of "name dropping." Nothing could be further from the truth, as is shown in the above: for Nooteboom, culture is what gives meaning to life, and the link with European culture serves to integrate our small lives into the larger tradition.

English translation by Adrienne Dixon, published by Mariner Books (1996). 
Dutch original published by De Bezige Bij.
Cees Nooteboom website