Religious Debate and Death in the Netherlands, or Ritual by Cees Nooteboom

In one of the odd quirks of personal history, I met Mr. Nooteboom once, briefly, while I was an undergraduate in Houston, and he was flown in by the department to give a reading from this book. I recall he stood at the door and shook people’s hands, but this could be a false memory or delusion after nearly two decades. I failed for many years to actually locate the book he had read from, after the reading, because it was very hard to get the proper spelling and/or pronunciation of his name out of my memory hole, and I never really wanted to seek it until after I had left the university and most of the people there. Fortune smiled on me, though, encountering stories and reviews about Dutch writers in my efforts to always expand my intellectual horizons with some country or culture I haven’t read lately, I saw a photograph of the man, smiling among his cohort, and I recognized him in a flash. The sailor, the gruff, the weather-beaten, the iconic Cees Nooteboom looks as much like the idea of what an author is supposed to be as anyone in this world. Pleased to recall the reading he gave at the University of Houston, once upon a time in around 2001, I sought out a copy of the novel from which I believe he had read: Rituals.

Is this too much to say to introduce the book? It is perhaps related to the density and high intellectual intent of the book, in question, that I hesitate to open discussion. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied with the book, but I believe it was an intentional unsatisfaction.

There are what I consider three major sections of the text. First, an independently wealthy Dutchman convinces his wife to abort their child, while he leads a life many would consider quintessentially wasted. He sleeps around. He produces no great works. He has friends, but they are men like him: wealthy and bored and inventing purposes for themselves pursuing the unattainable and divine in some fashion. It just so happens that Inni Wintrop, the man in question, finds his divinity through a kind of idealized sexuality that feels magically unreal and urbane… He never really works to seduce the women. He simply discovers that it is possible to sleep with them, and he does it. He is quite horrified and jealous and hurt to discover that his wife falls in love with an Italian photographer and leaves him. This description I have given does not quite do the text justice. The rituals of sexuality are sensuously illuminated, and the relationship carefully put together to build to the moment where all is lost. It is gorgeously composed, and a testament to the power of good style that such an otherwise mundane and cliche narrative with a character as uninteresting as Inni Wintrop at the center of it can be so powerful.

The second section involves the childhood of Inni Wintrop, and places the rituals in a larger context against the backdrop of a wealthy old Dutch family, and their quirky and abrasive family friend Arnold Taads, a devoted and proud atheist and misanthrope who loves his dog more than any of his friends. The charismatic man seems to swallow the aimless Inni up in a vortex of ideas. There is a dinner party where the avowed and outspoken atheist Arnold Taads debates a clergyman uncle with some of the most unforgettable imagery in the book illuminating the futility of all debate between someone who believes and someone who does not. There is no way around the fundament of belief/unbelief, even among such brilliant minds as are present there. Naturally, Taads comes to a lonely and unhappy end, dying in the snow while climbing a mountain of his own constructed solitude. He was a sort of monk of atheism, in his way, and had the death of one. I am glad to meet Taads in the book, but would cringe to meet him in life.

The final section involves art collectors, a world of ritual, as well, that seems to be a way to find purpose without finding God. In this section, Arnold Taads estranged and angry son appears unexpectedly. The text is probably weakest in this section, where the characters seem to be moving philosophically instead of spiritually or even with any impetus towards plausability of a fiction novel. But, this isn’t exactly a novel so much as it is a poetic treatise and should not be considered a narrative as anything other than that. It attempts to illuminate the rituals that give meaning to people’s lives and deaths. Without rituals, who would any of these men, be? Without the strict schedule of Arnold Taads, where not even an unexpected and beloved guest is permitted to deviate from the schedule, would he still be the man he is? Without the obsession with an idealized and unreal version of ancient Japanese tea rituals, would the younger Taads continue to exist as a distinct person in the flood of the world around him he so despised? And the cipher to all these events, the sensualist Winthrop, with his elaborate ritualized sex and death games, pushing back against his own mortality and insecurity in certain and sudden seductions, would he be anything at all?

It is a very European sort of novel, and suitable for an afternoon where one feels philosophical. It is a text that blurs the line between novel and philosophy and carries some sharp edges where this occasionally fails, but it is ultimately a rewarding thought piece with lots of gorgeous, gorgeous lines to savor. I can only imagine what it must sound like in the original Dutch.

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