Apr/May 2002 Book Reviews

All Souls' Day

Cees Nooteboom
Picador, Macmillan, (Jan 2002) 340 pages
ISBN: 0 330 39259 X

reviewed by Ann Skea

Arthur Daane is a Dutch photographer: "He made and produced his own TV documentaries, hired himself out as a cameraman if the subject seemed interesting enough, and every once in a while, if he needed the money or the mood struck, he would make a commercial for a company owned by a friend of his." But he has a passion for filming the ordinary and seemingly trivial—passing feet, passing wheels, the holes being filled by new buildings—history in the passing, moments of time which were once significant but are soon just a story with no reality.

Berlin, where Arthur is currently living, seems to him to have more ephemeral history than most places. The horrors of war have been built over, and few traces or memories are left of the Wall, the observation towers, the death strip or the deaths, or even of the dancers who celebrated the Wall's destruction. And Arthur, perhaps, is particularly sensitive to loss. Since his wife and child died in an air crash, he has lived an existential life with few commitments and no responsibilities. His few friends in Berlin are used to his absences.

Arthur's friends are an interesting and intellectual group who love to meet, eat, and talk. Their conversations, scattered throughout this book, are often philosophical and deep, and Arthur, too, is inclined to deep thoughts. Open this book at random and you are likely to find names like Hegel, Cranach, Heideggar, Odysseus and Nietzsche on the page, or discussions of physics, pourriture noble, German photography, and the difference between Dutch and German grammar. If you like ideas and debate, this will not bother you but delight you.

The course of Arthur's strange and unexpected affair with a prickly, anarchic Dutch woman called Elik, who is doing Ph.D research on an obscure Spanish Queen; Arthur's habit of seeing the world as photographic images; the way the voices of close but absent friends intrude into his thoughts—all this is intriguing. So, too, is Nooteboom's use of a "Chorus" (as they choose to call themselves) who slip into the story occasionally (and somewhat defensively) to give a broader perspective on events and to disclaim any responsibility for them.

Altogether this is an unusual book. It is not easy reading, but it is rewarding and different. Nooteboom, who has won several major prizes for his work in Europe, is a serious writer who deserves the high regard in which he is held. And Susan Massoty, who translated this book from the Dutch original, has also done a fine job.


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