Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
I’ve not stuck to my reading plans lately, but I will probably come back to that in another post. Instead, I’ve found myself reading a few short international reads, including this one, The Following Story by acclaimed Dutch writer Cees (Cornelis) Nooteboom. Although short, it’s not an easy book, and I’m not really sure my reading did it justice.
The book opens with former classics teacher Herman Mussert waking in a hotel room in Portugal – the same hotel in which he slept with another man’s wife 20 years before. What’s odd is, he clearly remembers falling asleep in his own bed at home in Amsterdam the night before.
“I had woken up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead, but whether I was actually dead, or had been dead, or vice versa, I could not ascertain … And evidently I was still somewhere: pretty soon it would also become apparent that I could walk, look around, eat (the sweetish mother’s-milk-and-honey taste of those little buns the Portuguese have for breakfast lingered in my mouth for hours). And I was able to pay with real money. This last, as far as I was concerned, was the most convincing evidence of all.”
The Mussert of the Lisbon-fling era was a crusty classicist, perhaps in early middle age – the sort of man, I feel, who would have been middle-aged even in his twenties though, when he was probably already wearing a tweed jacket complete with leather elbow patches. He unfortunately shares a name with a famous Dutch wartime fascist leader, while his students nickname him Socrates, presumably due to his tedious learnedness. Since losing his job he has written travel guides under the pen name Doctor Strabo, “a moronic activity whereby I earn my living” (Nooteboom himself, it should be noted, is also a successful travel writer!).
The book is written in the first person, and we follow Mussert as he wanders around Lisbon, re-treading the route he trod two decades before in a faintly penumbral fashion, and musing on the key events of his life, which led to the loss of his job and of his mistress. He is also forced to reflect on the nature of his own current existence – what the hell is going on?
The second half of the book is even more surreal, as Mussert boards a ferry with six others, and hidden truths are revealed.
“There was no conversation as yet. We knew at once that we belonged together. My dream have always born a disturbing resemblance to life, as if even in my sleep I could not come up with something new, but now it was the other way round, now at last my life resembled a dream. Dreams are closed systems, in which everything fits to perfection.”
There is no plot as such, though there is a metaphysical mystery to unravel. I found part of the story, which focused around a relationship between a student and a teacher, quite queasy-making. Meanwhile Nooteboom’s raw material, in emotionally cloistered throwback Mussert, seems uninspiring, but he is fully realised, with a distinctive, consistent voice.
The book is short as I’ve already noted – at only some 25,000 words it was published in 1991 for the annual Dutch “book week”, as part of which a well-known author is commissioned to write a short work that is given away free with each purchase in book shops (as a Boekenweekgeschenk or book week gift). The Following Story appeared in English translation in 1994, and is my third Dutch book.