Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love. These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella. Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures. Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills. Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.” Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.
When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy. As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture. De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:
They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will. They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan. And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it. To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.
The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.
The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model. As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.” In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years. He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her. Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.
Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan. She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union. He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:
Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on. Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei. By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.
The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon, also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.