Tag Archives: Dutch Literature

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

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.



Filed under Novella, Seagull Books, Uncategorized

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld.  Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld.  Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:

Hymn 22

To Poseidon:

Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.

It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters.  The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage.  Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance.  Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:

I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you.  There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant.  Who was it? And where?  Did you and the other gods talk about it?  We look at your statues, but you are not there.  Were you jealous of the gods who came after you?  Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful.  On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity.  But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:

What is a human being to the gods?  Do you despise us for being mortal?  Or is the opposite the case?  Are you jealous because we are allowed to die?  Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.

No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts.  It is as if you have simply vanished.

In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.)  Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality.  As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:

Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year?  Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life?  Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?

This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality.  Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody.  But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”

About the Author:

Cees Nooteboom (born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom, 31 July 1933, in the Hague) is a Dutch author. He has won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the P. C. Hooft Award, the Pegasus Prize, the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs for Rituelen, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Constantijn Huygens Prize, and has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Nonfiction

Review: The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press . It was first published in the original Dutch in 2013 and this English translation has been done by David Colmer.

My Review:
The Man I BecameI don’t normally read Dystopian, Orwellian type novels with talking Gorillas.  But since this book is published by Peirene Press I decided to give it a try anyway and I am glad I did.  The narrator tells us that he was living a happy life in the wild until one day members of his family start disappearing from their idyllic home.  He then finds himself drugged and dragged out of his natural habitat against his will.  He, along with his family, are chained together and forced on an arduous journey during which they are given just enough food and water to survive.  Some of them die along the way and the living are forced to march on and leave their loved ones behind..  I found this to be the most heart wrenching and sad part of the book.  Their fear was palpable and it was difficult to read about these innocent animals as they are taken out of their natural surroundings, and forced on a journey towards the unknown.

After a long ride on a ship in cramped quarters, the animals reach what they call The New World.  They are given clothes, taught how to clean and groom themselves and are given speech lessons.  They practice walking upright, which is very uncomfortable to them and they practice carrying on polite conversations.  It is clear that their captors are trying to turn them into something as close to human as possible.  After a period of time the animals are given a test to see how far their human training has come; they are dressed up and attend a coctail where they meet other animals that have also been trained.  This part of the book is an interesting commentary on what it means to truly be human.  If one can look the right way, and speak the right way and have manners, is that person truly human?  Are a bath, the ability to walk upright and to carry on a conversation really the only things that separate us from animals?

There is one other important social criticism that comes through in the narrative and that is our reliance on technology, especially the cell phone.  When the gorillas reach a certain point in their training they receive a phone and are told that it is their identification and they  must carry it wherever they go.  At first they can only receive calls on their phone and it is another way that their captors keep track of them.  As the narrator becomes more human, he gains more privileges for his phone, such as the ability to dial out to other numbers.  The humans who are in charge of the animals possess multiple phones  and are always seen answering their phones, looking at their phones and talking on their phones.  Is this electronic contraption really another thing that separates us from the animals or does it separate us from other humans and our sense of humanity?

The ending is very interesting and I don’t want to give it away.  But I will say that the gorilla’s life does appear to have a happy ending.  He no longer remembers his previous life and he has found some peace with his human existence.  He is a bit smarter than the rest of his family and he gradually begins to realize that conformity isn’t always the best decision; he questions and investigates his surroundings and those who have positions of authority.  I am sure that there are additional layers of meaning in the story that I did not understand.  I can’t wait to see what other readers make of this story.

This is the first release from Peirene Press this year in their Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  The Man I Became is a powerful and thought-provoking first book with which to start the Fairy Tale series and I look forward to the other novellas with great anticipation.  Please visit their website for more details: http://peirenepress.com/

About the Author:
peter_verhelst_0Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and playwright. He has written more than 20 books. His work has been praised for its powerful images, the sensuality and richness of its language and the author’s unbridled imagination. His breakthrough came in 1999 with the novel Tonguecat, which won the Golden Owl Literature Prize and the Flemish State Prize for Literature. The Man I Became is his eleventh novel.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier

I have been reading and enjoying a raft of literature in translation lately.  I was thrilled to receive an ARC of this book that was originally written and published in Dutch in 2008.  This version has been translated into English by Paul Vincent.

My Review:
Gods Were SleepingHelena is a very old woman who has outlived all of her friends, acquaintances and relatives.  She is homebound and needs round-the-clock care which is provided by a kind young woman named Rachida.  We get the feeling that Helena is waiting for death which she feels is imminent and while she waits she writes down the memories of her life, especially those that revolve around the period of World War I.

Helena’s father is Belgian and her mother is French, so she grows up living between these two countries.  She spends the summers in her mother’s family home in France, and when World War I breaks out Helena is forced to wait out the war with her mother, brother, uncle and aunts in their French countryside home.  Helena’s father is left back in Belgium and the family suffers this long separation.

The main characters in Helena’s memoir are her mother, brother and husband.  She has an uneasy relationship with all three.  Throughout her life Helena feels that, as a young woman growing up in a European bourgeois family, she is deprived of many freedoms.  Her mother, who still wears the stiff corsets of the 19th century and is always acutely aware of the gossip from the neighbors, will not let Helena wander out of their home unaccompanied.  Helena resents her mother for keeping her prisoner under these strict, and what she views as, old-fashioned mores.

Helena loves her brother Edgar and is very close to him yet she is jealous of the freedom he is allowed.  As a stark contrast to Helena, he can walk through the city streets at his leisure, have countless affairs, and travel off to war.  When Edgar is wounded during the Great War, he is finally sent home and Helena listens in horror to his vivid details of trench warfare.  One of the aspects of this book that is most impressive is the writer’s ability to graphically describe the tragedies of the war suffered by everyone who witnessed it; sounds, colors, textures, smells, and ruined landscapes are all described in order to capture the scale and destruction of The Great War.

When Helene marries a British soldier named Matthew who has a penchant for wandering and being on the open road, she admires his sense of adventure and his freedom.  But it is his wanderlust that keeps her separated from him for long periods of time.  When they have a child together, a daughter, I was surprised that Helena’s relationship with her was just a contentious as Helena’s relationship with her own mother.

The language and prose of the book feels disintegrated, as Helena jumps from one period of time to the next.  It is almost as if we are looking through an album of old photographs with Helena and she tells us stories of her life as they pop up in her mind.  She oftentimes goes on tangents as one story will remind her of another which she will launch into.  I think some readers will find this writing style confusing and disruptive, but it is appropriate for the setting of the book.  Helena is a very old woman, reflecting back on a long life and as images and narratives randomly appear in her memory she writes them down for us to read.

I have read quite a few historical fiction novels set during World War I this past year and WHILE THE GODS WERE SLEEPING is among the best for capturing the emotions, heartache, lasting effects of this war.

About The Author:
Erwin Mortier is a Dutch-language Belgian author. Spending his youth in Hansbeke, he later moved to nearby Ghent, where he became city poet (2005-2006).He wrote as a columnist for newspapers like De Morgen and has published several novels including Marcel, My Fellow Skin, Shutter Speed, and While the Gods Were Sleeping.


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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, World War I