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.