Noote­boom’s mar­itime med­i­ta­tions bring beau­ti­ful melan­choly

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - ARTS & LIFE -

DUTCH au­thor Cees Noote­boom spends much of his year on the Span­ish is­land of Menorca. Ev­ery fall, he swims out in the ocean to ask Po­sei­don, the Greek god of the sea, to al­low him to re­turn for one more year.

The 82-year-old in­tel­lec­tual asks the an­cient god many more ques­tions in his lat­est book. Let­ters To Po­sei­don is a wide-rang­ing jour­ney back in time and around the globe, weav­ing 23 let­ters writ­ten to the tri­den­twield­ing god to­gether with trav­el­ogues that take the reader to mu­se­ums, beaches, gar­dens, air­ports, and fre­quently, be­neath the ocean’s sur­face.

Let­ters to Po­sei­don was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Europe in 2012, and was only re­cently trans­lated into English. Noote­boom is known as a poet, nov­el­ist and travel writer, and has re­ceived many hon­ours and awards. His best-known book, Roads to San­ti­ago, was pub­lished in 1992.

Es­chew­ing a con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive, Let­ters to Po­sei­don is a se­ries of med­i­ta­tions that of­ten walk the thin line be­tween life and death, and ponder the essence of hu­man ex­is­tence.

It of­fers an in­tel­lec­tu­ally de­mand­ing, some­times en­gross­ing quest that seeks to do the im­pos­si­ble — cre­ate a di­a­logue with a lost world and a god who is all but for­got­ten. The au­thor asks ques­tions of Po­sei­don and, at times, seems miffed to get no re­sponse.

If the let­ters can be some­what per­plex­ing and dense, the travel post­cards are mostly charm­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing.

In one, Noote­boom pon­ders what a sink­ing body looks like. Ref­er­enc­ing the Ti­tanic, an Air France crash and a de­stroyed Rus­sian sub­ma­rine along the way, he pon­ders — is it “a kind of dread­fully silent bal­let, one that you have seen all too of­ten, the slow­est dance with­out mu­sic?”

He goes even fur­ther and de­scribes what hap­pens when a whale the size of a large ship dies and sinks to the bot­tom of the ocean — the en­su­ing din­ner party can last up to a cen­tury, and many of the 400 or so crea­tures who par­take are dead by the time the car­cass is com­pletely con­sumed.

There’s a take-off on a news story in which a 68-year-old man is granted per­mis­sion by the French pres­i­dent to marry the hat of the woman he lived with for 20 years (the woman died be­fore they could wed). The au­thor queries: did the hat rec­og­nize the guests, and what did the man say when he was fi­nally alone with the hat?

If it sounds un­re­lent­ingly dark or even odd, the sur­prise is that it mostly makes for com­pelling read­ing. Some­how the writer’s in­quis­i­tive na­ture and eru­dite prose make po­etry out of events as bleak as even the 1986 space shut­tle Chal­lenger disas­ter.

Noote­boom def­i­nitely has a knack for mak­ing his read­ers feel more in­tel­li­gent. “His tone is one of as­ton­ished as­sur­ance, not ar­ro­gant in­struc­tion, of in­quis­i­tive per­plex­ity, never pedan­tic cer­tainty,“writes Cana­dian writer Al­berto Manguel in the pref­ace.

The au­thor tosses off ref­er­ences to Kafka, Dante, Ovid, Homer, Rubens, Cézanne, Goya and Proust. Read­ers who en­joy a good in­tel­lec­tual work­out will find much to chew on. A cur­sory knowl­edge of Greek mythol­ogy is help­ful in or­der to de­ci­pher some of the more chal­leng­ing ideas.

Why the en­tire book isn’t en­tirely let­ters isn’t clear — that could have pro­vided a more co­he­sive read. The al­ter­nat­ing styles re­ally mean that one could pick this book up and start read­ing any­where. The vi­su­als and foot­notes at the book’s con­clu­sion are over­whelm­ing, and feel like the au­thor doesn’t trust his ma­te­rial to com­mu­ni­cate with­out fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion.

At this book’s heart is an achingly beau­ti­ful melan­choly. As Noote­boom ob­serves, “When it is my turn to go and I look back at my empty chair, there can be no cer­tainty that I ever sat there.”

Greg Klassen is a Win­nipeg writer.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.