Nooteboom’s maritime meditations bring beautiful melancholy
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.