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All Souls

When did the name of Cees Nooteboom first catch my eye? I'm pretty sure that I took it to be the name of a woman, but that by the time I bought one of Mr Nooteboom's books, I knew better. That was in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and the book was Allerzielen, or All Souls Day. Buying the novel in its original text was a characteristic act of folly. I know a bit of Nederlands, but not enough even to attempt a literary novel of such richness. But I was thinking of tackling the language seriously, which I did until I fell ill. When I got better, I was already spending Tuesday afternoons with my French prof; Nederlands was set aside. I still have Allerzielen, though.

And I have All Souls Day as well - Susan Massotty's translation. It's no longer in print, but I found a copy somewhere. When it arrived, it went into the gross fiction pile, and there it stayed for I don't know how long. I ought to read that, my superego whispered. You know what that leads to: prolonged procrastination. All Souls Day is a serious novel by an unknown writer who's not, at the moment, a topos of buzz.

Then my French kicked in. I don't mean the language, I mean the sérieux. All Souls Day went into the bedside fiction pile. I finally opened it up because it was the book at the bottom, and getting it out of the way would diminish the clutter.

I say all of this because it's a very typical instance of the skirmishes that aspiration and laziness wage for my attention.

Most concisely, All Souls Day is about the end of a long mourning. Arthur Daane, a cameraman who occasionally produces his own documentaries, lost his wife, Roelfje, and his son, Thomas, ten years ago, when their airliner crashed in Spain. Arthur knows how to keep busy, but his busyness has become a way of not moving on. We find Arthur on the streets of Berlin on a winter afternoon. Arthur's Berlin circle of friends includes Viktor, a sculptor who also hails from the Netherlands; Arno, a German philosopher; and Zenobia, Arno's Russian sister-in-law. Together with the proprietors of their two favorite restaurants, these people comprise Arthur's family. He has an apartment in Amsterdam, and a woman friend, Erna, who barrages him with advice, but Arthur has become "a traveler without baggage." Whether working on an exotic project or loafing around a favorite city, Arthur does not have a home. And he is in mourning.

The quality of this mourning is not probed; it is clearly something that Arthur tries not to bump up against, and he does not examine it. His wife and daughter seem, from time to time, to be in the same room, but they're not happy, because they can't get older. I hesitate to say that much, because this is by no means a work of magic realism or high-toned science fiction. All Souls Day is very firmly planted on the geography of Berlin. And Berlin doesn't need any special effects to serve as the matrix for the novels rich meditations. The scar left by the wall, the ruins of the Gedächtsniskirche, the brutalist cement housing projects in the East, these are all explored for what they can tell us about mortality.

Surely no other century had seen as much murder, slaughter, and genocide as this one. It was common knowledge; so there was no point in bringing it up. Perhaps the worst part was not just the killing itself - the attacks, the executions, the rapes and beheadings, the slaughter of tens of thousands of people - but the amnesia that set in almost immediately afterward, business as usual, as if it were a drop in the bucket to a world population of six billion, as if - and this fascinated him even more - humanity wasn't interested in individual names, only in the blind survival of the species. The woman who happened to be passing by when the bomb exploded in Madrid, the seven Trappist monks whose throats were cut in Algiers, the twenty boys gunned down before their parents' eyes in Colombia, the entire trainful of commuters hacked to death with machetes in a five-minute burst of orgiastic fury, the two hundred passengers on the plane that exploded above the sea, the two, three, or six thousand men and boys killed in Srebenica, the hundreds of thousands of women and children slain in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola. For one moment, a day, a week, they were front-page news, for several seconds they flowed through cables in every part of the globe, and then it began, the black, delete-button darkness of oblivion that from now on would only get worse. The dead would no longer have names. They would have been erased in the emptiness of evil, each in the separate moment of his or her horrible death.

The range of Arthur's thinking is but one of the elements that mark All Souls Day as a European novel. Its focus outward on the world, and not inward on the self, is another. An untutored reader might dismiss them as "intellectual" or even "idealistic," but to do so is to miss the warmth and humanity of Arthur's internal monologue. Warmth and humanity also characterize the restaurant conversations with his friends. Arthur does not say much; guarding against stabs of loss, he refrains from launching tangents or offering comprehensive explanations. On the rare occasions when he does speak at length, we're simply told that he spoke; we already know what he has to say. All of this comports further with Arthur's profession, which in turn drags him into the romantic encounter that gradually comes to support the narrative trajectory. All Souls Day may feel rambling and even directionless at times during a first reading, but it is a beautifully composed Big European Novel.

The romance is unromantic in ways that we have come to appreciate in European films. There is a much deeper respect for patches of resistance, and there is no underestimation of how difficult it is to reconcile desire with difficult personal history. The relationship that Arthur develops with a woman whom he runs up against in a café, improbably names Elik Oranje, starts out on a difficult note and only gets more difficult. It's a relationship between two hurt and wary people who, though each becomes quickly obsessed with the other, react in opposite ways to obsession. When American lovers behave like this, it's because they're empty and inexperienced, not the case with Arthur and Elik. The romance is "resolved" on the novel's very last page.

This is not a novel that can be discussed after a first read. I can recommend it, but I can't assess the details - and perhaps that's as it should be. All Souls Day is a novel that needs to be read a second time. I'm out on a very windy limb when I ask: Will I ever?

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Comments

Well, you certainly inspire a first reading from this entry. Whether or not you reread it is another matter. But sometimes the "rereading" occurs in interesting ways a book resurfaces in our mind.

Here's a question: would you reread this or "Never Let Me Go" first and why?

As a matter of fact, I'm thinking about rereading Never Let Me Go now, now that the paperback has come out and more people will be reading it.

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