Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

The first few pages of Nooteboom’s novella The Following Story called to mind the same eerie calmness one finds in Kafka’s Metamorphoses.  Herman Mussert goes to sleep in his apartment in Amsterdam but wakes up a hotel room in Lisbon where twenty years previously he had spent a few days with his lover.  Mussert recognizes the room but doesn’t know how here got there or which body he occupies—his current one or the younger one he had on his visit twenty years ago.  He decides to retrace his steps around Lisbon while remembering the events in his life that caused him to visit this city before.

When he was in his early thirties Mussert was a classics teacher at a high school; he loved teaching Latin and he was very successful at it.  In the first part of the book Nooteboom is writing about metamporhosis-–how his character’s life, his career, his loneliness have evolved over the past twenty years.  Mussert had an affair with a colleague, a fellow science teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose obnoxious husband also works at the school and is having his own affair with a student.  The centerpiece and most clever piece of the narrative takes place in Mussert’s  and Marina’s  classrooms when they observe one another’s lessons.  While in Maria’s class Mussert learns all about beetles who use the carrion of rats to mate and reproduce.  Mussert also teaches a lesson on metamorrphosis, that of Phaeton borrowing his father Apollo’s  chariot and crashing it while carrying the sun.  “It is obvious from the start,” Mussert thinks, “that disaster will befall him, that Apollo’s foolish son will come crashing down with his golden chariot and fire-breathing horses.”  Nooteboom’s language is filled with striking images that foreshadow Mussert’s fate.

The catalyst for change in Mussert’s life is his love for Maria.  Life after Maria involves solitary nights with his books, his cat, a different career and an attempt to forget about his time with her.  His strange and sudden appearance in Lisbon brings all the stages of his metamorphosis back to him:

Ignis mutat res (fire changes everything), I muttered, but my matter was not to be changed by any fire. I had already changed. Around me there was burning and melting, other two-headed creatures came to life, but I had long since lost my other, so red-haired head, the female half of me had broken off.  I had become a sort of cinder, a residue.  My reason for being here, on this perhaps or perhaps not sought-after journey, could well be a pilgrimage back to those days, and if so I, like a medieval pilgrim, would have to visit all the sites of my brief hold life, all the stations where the past had a face.

In the second part of the book Mussert suddenly finds himself on a ship, sailing on the ocean, then on the Amazon river, which becomes an elaborate metaphor for his  voyage to the afterlife. Nooteboom’s narrative is filled with images of death and allusions to the underworld.  Mussert describes the last few days of his teaching career, during which time he was giving a lesson on the Crito and Socrates’s death, which ends suddenly and tragically.  Mussert’s fellow passengers on this trip, a priest, an airline pilot, a child, a journalist and an academic, all take turns telling tragic stories of loss suffered during their lives.  And Mussert thinks about his translation of Horace Odes, Book II, and in particular his translation of the lines: Damnosa quid non imminuit dies?  Time corrupts all. What has it not made worse?

As the ship makes its way down the river, the underworld and death metaphors become more obvious with Nooteboom’s stunning language:

The water turned a deeper, more disturbing shad of brown. Large pieces of wood floated on the surface. This was the throat of the great river, this was where the continent spat out its gut, this mud had been carried down from the Andes, through the wounded jungle guarding its last secrets, its last hidden dwellers, the lost world of eternal shadows, the tenebrae. Procul recedant somnia, et noctium fantasmata,  Protect me from bad dreams, the phantasms of the night.

Phaeton. Gustave Moreau. 1878

 

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Damnosa Quid non Imminuit Dies?: The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom

  1. Thanks for the Latin! _*Ignis mutat res*_ …an immutable truism in certain contexts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. alilauren1970

    I have had this on my trb pile for a long time. I learned about it from the Complete Review, and your positive review encourages me to pick it up. I am currently reading Broch’s Sleepwalkers (a very dense, but rewarding read, and I intend to pick up his Death of Virgil), and I want a shorter lighter read alongside this. I am almost finished with Welcome to America (another Complete Review recommendation) so I will pick this up when I’m done with Welcome to America. I am glad you posted about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also read Nooteboom’s Letters to Poseidon which I enjoyed. The Complete Review is a great site!

      I think that Times Flow read Sleepwalkers. Do you know that blog? Great reads there too. I am hoping to read Broch’s Death of Vergil this year!

      Like

      • alilauren1970

        Yes, I do know that blog! I comment over there, as well. I really like the books he talks about. He did read Sleepwalkers. I think he liked it, but probably not as much I do. I am really enjoying it a lot! And yes, the Complete Review is a favorite of mine. I learned about the writer Patrick White from that site, another writer I really enjoy! I will be most interested in your ideas about Death of Virgil. It seems like a book for you given your background.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Enlightening as always – though I’ve read this it hadn’t quite clicked that the classics element would place it in your area of expertise
    I’ve used the opening alongside the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis for a creative writing exercise in the past!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought the Kafka allusion in the beginning was very strong! And the classical allusions kept me reading this for a week. I kept stopping to translate the passages he brought up. He also has a great sense of humor!

      Like

  4. I read a number of his books he did a interview on the blog a number of years ago think I have this in an old edition on my shelves somewhere

    Liked by 1 person

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