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To Aran or Isfahan

Paul O'Brien

Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, by Cees Nooteboom, Vintage Books, 240 pp, £7.99, ISBN 978-0099453789

It may be something of a miracle that the Dutch travel writer and novelist Cees Nooteboom has come to understand himself as a nomad. Many years ago, he claims, he presented himself to the abbot of a monastery at Achel on the Belgian border with a view to becoming a Trappist monk. He was convinced by “the sight of those ghostly, silent white figures meditating and striding about with skirts flapping, the sound of Latin canticles between the facing rows of choir stalls, the all-enveloping silence in the library and the idea of staying in the same place forever, stabilitas loci ….” The doubtful abbot took a Life of Abelard from the shelf, handed the Dutchman a dictionary, pad and pencil and requested that they discuss his vocation when he had finished translating it from the Latin. Faced with this prospect, Nooteboom took to the road and his monkish aspirations were replaced by those of travel writer, editor, novelist, translator and poet.

It may be as a poet that Nooteboom will wish to be remembered, yet it is more likely that he will secure his place in posterity for his fiction and travel writing. As a novelist he may well join the ranks of Calvino, Borges and Nabokov and as a travel writer he will be in the august company of Magris, Brenan, Fermor and Morris. It is no surprise, then, to learn that fame came early to him. In 1955, when he was just twenty-two, he was awarded the Anne Frank prize for his surreal picaresque novel Philip and the Others, inspired in part by a hitchhiking tour through Europe. In 1982 he won the Pegasus Prize for Rituals andin 1985 the Multatuli Prize for his novel In the Dutch Mountains. The experimental The Following Story (1991) secured the Aristeion European Literary Prize for best novel, and in 2004 he was awarded the prestigious PC Hooftprijs for his entire oeuvre.

In 1963 Nooteboom published the novel The Knight has Died, which, like Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, obscures the boundaries between author and protagonist. The novel’s protagonist attempts to write a book from the notes of a dead friend who has committed suicide, only to discover that this was also the objective of the deceased. Such literary devices are central to his approach to the novel. However, while the subject matter of his novels does not allow him to commit to the “grand illusioneering of realism”, as JM Coetzee would put it, it is invariably informed, directly or indirectly, by his experience of travel. Coetzee defines his fiction as being as much about its own processes and raisons d'être as it is about the fictitious activities of its personages. There is more at stake here than postmodern trickery, however, as Nooteboom, as a novelist, is on solid ground when addressing the possibility of cultural cross-fertilisation, the relentless influence of the past and the metaphorical significance of the voyage in the journey of the self.

After writing The Knight has Died, Nooteboom felt, in spite of his all-too-mobile childhood, that he had “not enough world” in him to continue with fiction and thus turned his attention for almost two decades to poetry and travel writing, the latter allowing him to be his own protagonist. He developed a talent for literary journalism, blending, in travelogues such as Een ochtend in Bahi (1968) and Een avond in Isfahan (1978), the skills of essayist, historian, diarist and social commentator. He has travelled extensively in the Third World, Asia, the Maghreb, South America, Europe and Australia and his prolific oeuvre has been forged over a period of almost six decades.

Born in 1933, the year Hitler took office, he has borne witness to many political and social upheavals. He has been in a position to write about social tensions in Africa and was lucky enough to be on hand when the Berlin Wall was demolished. In this regard, he has kept a watchful eye on the process of European integration. Nomad that he is, it is difficult and perhaps fruitless to state where he might call home: he has lived for extended periods in Berlin, Amsterdam and the Spanish islands, especially Minorca. His experiences of living and travelling beyond the Netherlands have informed practically all his works since he first put pen to paper in the wake of the Second World War.

Nooteboom first visited Spain in 1953 and came to know and love it perhaps more intimately than any other destination. In 1992 a selection of his travel articles on the country were anthologised in De Omweg naar Santiago,a magisterial tome not incomparable with Claudio Magris’s Danube. International fame as a travel writer, if it had not arrived before, came in 1997 with the publication of the English edition, Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. The word “detours” is not chosen flippantly since digressions, be they from realism to fantasy, the present to the past or architecture to abstraction, feature strongly in all his travelogues. The relationship between aperçu and analysis is not so much difficult as dialectical, frequently leading to an end product that is both self-reflexive and theoretical.

Few collections of travel writing propound a coherent theory of travel while simultaneously entertaining the reader but Nooteboom’s latest anthology, Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, acquits itself admirably in this regard. Like all good theory however, Nooteboom’s does not precede practice. In the opening chapter he recalls how, as a young man, he packed a rucksack, took leave of his mother and took a train to Breda in the south of the Netherlands. An hour later he was on the Belgian border with his thumb in the air, thus sowing the seeds of a lifetime of nomadism. He made his first voyage as a merchant seaman to earn his passage to Surinam and has been doing his soul’s bidding ever since.

In his youth, Nooteboom recalls, “any meditative thought, any metaphysical pretension was foreign to me, those sorts of things only come later, rather in the way a Tibetan prayer wheel functions in fact, with the movement preceding the thought”. Pascal once claimed that all the unhappiness of men arose from their inability to stay quietly in their own chamber. Centuries later Bruce Chatwin suggested in his semi-fictional travelogue Songlines that man is instinctively nomadic, the implication being that only through wandering can he be at peace with himself and the world. The repression of this instinct by the harsh exigencies of modern existence, he would have argued, manifests itself in the anomic behaviour evident across the western world. Nooteboom, like Chatwin’s nomads, is at ease with his lifetime of wandering; he is at home in it. He is a man who can write on the move and has overcome his desire for stabilitas loci.

At first, however, travel does not come easy. “Travelling,” Nooteboom claims in the opening chapter, “is something you have to learn. It is a constant transaction with others in the course of which you are simultaneously alone.” It is a negotiation with time, space, language and difference. By virtue of not being somewhere else, the traveller is in a permanent state of absence. Coming to terms with this absence is his first duty and doing so must involve not only the realisation that one is absent yet somewhere but also the calm recognition that one is “always with oneself”. Drawing on the twelfth century Arabian philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, Nooteboom reminds us that a voyage “is thus named because it reveals a person’s character, or, put more simply, for the benefit of those who travel alone: on a journey you get to know yourself”.

So, what is the character of Nooteboom as revealed in Nomad’s Hotel? His deceptive lightness of touch indicates a travel writer at ease negotiating the baffling and well-nigh infinite variety of peoples, places, languages, histories and cultures the world has to offer. His prose can be both measured and baroque, and to some his self-reflexiveness may be synonymous with self-indulgence. However, he is a writer’s writer in the mode of Claudio Magris, and his work, especially that on Spain, invites comparison to Magris’s Danube. The collection of writings in Nomad’s Hotel is the result of over three decades of travel and touches on destinations from Aran to Isfahan and Munich to Marrakesh.

The calmness born of sometimes stormy experience is the calm that enables Nooteboom to write. “Maybe the genuine traveller is always positioned in the eye of the storm,” he speculates. “The storm being the world, the eye that with which he views it.” In Roads to Santiago, his masterful if sometimes untidy account of a decade of pilgrimages through a millennium of Spanish history and culture, he contends that not writing about these journeys to Spain would have been the equivalent of his not having been there. Employing a modified Cartesian cogito, he might affirm: “I write, therefore I am.” Curiously, the same reasoning obtains among the antipodean nomads described by Chatwin: their world did not exist for them until their ancestors rose up from the featureless clay and sung it into being, a process requiring perpetual ritual renewal. Writing is the ritual of ordering the chaos of perception.

Nooteboom’s accounts of his travels in the Islamic world predate the present era of strained relations and he will admit he travelled in what he would describe as “innocent times” and that he was sometimes guilty of seeing with an innocent eye. These accounts now constitute vintage – but far from outdated – Nooteboom and his tactics today would surely differ from those he employed then. In an era of postcolonial discourse, the critic will always ask the extent to which the Western writer has fallen prey to orientalist or essentialist fantasies. If Nooteboom does so, he does so self-consciously and by way of apology points to unbridgeable social and linguistic differences. In this regard particular reference must be made to those that obtain for him in the Sahara and Persia. If and when he comes face to face with eternal otherness, the arrangement seems to reciprocate itself.

In the chapter entitled “At the Edge of the Sahara”, Nooteboom, like Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness, is drawn to the empty spaces on the map. In describing his trip to Goulimine, he ascertains that the shock of the unknown is one of gentle sensuality; it is a shock tempered by innocence. The traveller’s journey may be into the territory of otherness, yet it is deemed worthy of poetic excess and can be liberating:

If you are unable to join in there is a lot you can dispense with. Your masks do not count. As far as a Berber from Goulimine is concerned you could as easily be from Ohio, so that many of the nuances one has taken pains to cultivate no longer apply. And that makes this type of travel a pleasant sort of void, a state of zero-gravity in which, although the self does not lose all significance, a good deal does get written off – you float through those foreign climes, seeking, looking, watching, scratching the invulnerable surface here and there, and then you disappear again, returning emptier.

The invulnerable surface of the Orient might be posited as a region where, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “to be saved you only must save face/ And whatever you say, you say nothing”. But saving face is scarcely possible in a land where the cultural, social and linguistic divide is so great. Moroccan boys’ bodies blend into the landscape as if they grew there, Persian mosques can be admired but their secrets are ultimately impenetrable. Faced with the dizzying task of apprehending Morocco’s ancient culture, Nooteboom feels in danger of being labelled a “foreign idiot”, but acknowledges, generously, that he, in accordance with the rules of reciprocity, does not get any further than “mysterious Berber” or “Arab clad in long robes”.

Though he might be criticised for Eurocentrism and over occasional encounters with “eternal otherness” in the Sahara and Persia, Nooteboom is sufficiently aware of the ever-pervasive power of cultural cross-fertilisation to acknowledge that international contact causes the grip of the West to tighten. Such cross-fertilisation inevitably affects both ancient pieties and traditional social hierarchies. Moroccan waiters, no longer sporting their traditional robes, “take their first steps in the shadow-play of progress, the worm is in the apple, and every country has a right to its own rotten apple”.

Nooteboom’s writing in so-called “innocent times”, be he in Mali, Morocco, Iran or elsewhere, coupled with his self-image as a dreamy observer, occasionally results in a form of analytical collapse whereby the Islamic world, in all its diversity, becomes an inscrutably exotic land of camels, oases, wine, roses and verse. There is an impenetrable fog of magic and mystery that is sometimes closer to the Thousand and One Nights than to reality. Nooteboom admits he knows less about the Berbers the more he reads about them. Their language, Tifinar, is “written in a cryptic alphabet that surely Borges alone would have been able to decipher”. He is indeed in a “pleasant sort of void”.

But the rose-tinted spectacles do not stay on forever, as he frequently feels compelled to meditate on contemporary political circumstances. In “An Evening in Isfahan”, written in 1975, he comments unreservedly on the despotism of the Shah, the plight of political prisoners and the reticence of the regime he encountered:

That same reticence which obscures everything also makes it difficult, after one not very lengthy visit, for an outsider to judge whether the regime’s foundations are solidly embedded in the popular bedrock. Something is definitely brewing in purist Muslim circles, and it is certainly also true that the tempestuous, excessively ambitious development programme is stirring up forces too powerful to remain under the control of one man.

Although Nooteboom is far from typifying homo economicus and sometimes prefers to stare in innocence or travel far into the past, it would be injudicious to condemn him as negligent of his travel-writerly duty to comment on contemporary politico-economic circumstances. In addition to the chapter on Isfahan, those on the Gambia and Mali serve as adequate counters to such a judgment. In Mali, for example, he demonstrates a keen awareness of the dilemma of the country’s intelligentsia: how can it get a modern postcolonial democracy off the ground while simultaneously preserving an ancient way of life, with all its traditions and castes, in the knowledge that doing so would result in its foundering immediately on “antiquated enmities and traumas”?

Having said this, Nooteboom, while uncannily astute when meditating on the living, is at his best when describing the vertiginous presence of the past and raising the ghosts of the dead. In Nomad’s Hotel and Roads to Santiago, he frequently indulges in the ubiquitous traveller’s fantasy of wedding temporal regression to spatial progression. For such a master of metaphor and champion of allusion, voyaging backwards in time is a means of expressing the ancientness of a civilisation and the extent to which millennially old customs show through cracks in the modern facade. Nooteboom is most at ease when peeling away layers of history and consequently often finds himself happiest among the most ancient traces of antiquity. Even the spread of Islamic culture can appear a relatively modern phenomenon by contrast with the ancient cultures of the Berbers or Persians. In Isfahan the sublimity of relatively modern Islamic art leaves Nooteboom in a state of narrative impotence. His powers of architectural description, normally so elegant and precise when applied to the Gothic and Romanesque churches of Europe, are of no use to him here:

How do you describe the dome of a mosque? One aspect of Arabic art is its non-humanity, that images of human beings are excluded. There is no identification with drama, feeling, history. You walk around in a permanent state of bliss, each form more sophisticated, more sensual, more perfect than the one before, and you keep on looking until, in my case, a dazzled sort of blindness takes hold, and all the labyrinthine geometric figures and their tints become a blur of colour, as if the kaleidoscope has melted from all that looking.

It is not through seeking the trappings of ephemeral and future-oriented modern European culture that Nooteboom tempers his bliss and regains his mental purchase but by focusing on the architecture of the pre-Islamic Persian past, where empathetic human iconography surfaces yet again.

To paint a picture of Nooteboom as a nomad overwhelmed by melancholic vertigo as countless layers of history swim before his eyes may be helpful but it is not entirely accurate. His approach, although self-consciously erudite, is too light-footed and imaginative, and often too humorous, to elicit comparison with authors such as WG Sebald, whose strange and finely woven creation The Rings of Saturn derives its melancholy power from an aesthetic of decay. Nooteboom’s approach is frequently dreamy, contemplative and ludic, and this is often the most judicious modus operandi where the ghosts of the past kindle the anxiety of influence.

In Roads to Santiago, Nooteboom speaks of being mysteriously magnified on arriving in certain destinations by all who have come and gone before him. At the entrance to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela there is a marble column where countless pilgrims, now dead, have placed their hands, thereby creating something of a negative image of a claw. It is a collective work of art by the faithful and has been eroded into the stone unconsciously and with glacial pace over half a dozen centuries. It therefore becomes for Nooteboom both a symbol of eternity and the spiritual nucleus of all the regions of Spain. That the living and dead are present for him seems to serve as his primary aesthetic impulse. In Venice, for example, he is visited by the ghosts of august company. The anxiety of influence is pronounced in such a city and everything one lays one’s eyes on is anachronistic; yet it is not a cause for concern:

Here, on the contrary, that [anachronism] is not tragic, for while you are looking they go on talking, you are constantly accompanied by the living and the dead, you are involved in an age-old conversation. Proust, Ruskin, Rilke, Byron, Pound, Goethe, McCarthy, Morand, Brodsky, Montaigne, Casanova, Goldini, Da Ponte, James, Montale, their words flow around you like the water in the canals, and just as the sunlight causes the waves behind the gondolas to fragment into myriad tiny sparkles, so that one word Venice sparkles in all those conversations, letters, sketches and poems, always the same, always different.

Rather than attempt to reiterate the words of the luminaries who have trodden the Venetian cobbles before him or resort solely to conventional realistic description, Nooteboom bombards us with an imaginative paean to the city, sometimes melancholy but frequently playful and humorous. “Could it be,” he muses, “that there are more madonnas in Venice than living women?” He imagines the consequences if all the “painted, sculpted, ivory-clad Venetians” rose together from their “frames, niches, predellas, plinths, tapestries and cornices, to drive the Japanese, the Americans, the Germans from their gondolas, occupy the restaurants and finally, with their swords and shields, their purple cloaks and crowns, tridents and wings, demand payment for ten centuries of loyal service”. In the midst of his poetic and pensive reveries, wit is rarely absent; humour is possible even in the eye of the storm. It would be a dour person indeed who could not smile at Nooteboom’s account of his arrest in the Gambia for not dismounting his bicycle quickly enough as the president passed by in his black Mercedes.

Nooteboom’s interaction with the physical landscapes of his travels is not so pronounced as his engagement with culture. Although Nomad’s Hotel demonstrates its author’s expertise in the arts, history, culture and languages, it does not necessarily betray a passion for the world of natural science or modern cartography. One suspects that, in spite of his scholarly thoroughness in the fields of architecture and the arts, Nooteboom agrees with Keats’s dictum that all charms fly at the mere touch of a cold philosophy. A world steeped in mystery, it seems, is altogether more attractive to the human mind than one governed solely by unflinching reason.

In a radio interview in Australia with Julie Copeland, Nooteboom recounted that when Heidegger, an atheist, was asked why he had blessed himself in a Benedictine abbey he responded that in a place of so much prayer the godly is always present. Tim Robinson, author of the two-volume Stones of Aran, an almost impossibly encyclopaedic meditation on the largest of the Aran islands, would not necessarily agree. Nooteboom uses Robinson’s text as his reading material on a trip to Inishmore and regards it as so complete that it is “as if the walls of time do not exist”. Bibliophile that he is, he is almost as fascinated by the book as by the rich and rocky landscape it describes. In a moment of legitimate professional jealousy, he tellingly utters the following of Robinson: “As storyteller, cartographer, geologist, botanist, detective and meteorologist, he has physically permeated the present and psychologically the past, like a latter-day Stanley in some kind of mythical Africa.” Such an act of permeation, involving a quarter century of labour, is a task that would be impossible for Nooteboom since it would keep him in one place for too great a part of his life. After all, he is of the genus of nomads and poets. While Robinson might, at a push, be admitted to Plato’s republic, Nooteboom would be sent on his merry way, albeit crowned with laurels.

The poet’s approach to the landscape rarely coincides with that of the geologist and cartographer and Nooteboom’s subscription to the pathetic fallacy would be deemed by them a cardinal sin. “Nature knows nothing about us,” writes Tim Robinson, “and takes no notice of us. One should forgo these overluxuriant metaphors that covertly impute a desire of communication to non-human reality.” Forever the poet, however, Nooteboom cannot help himself, and his text is the richer for it. In Zurich, for example, he visits an ancient tree once painted by Gottfried Keller: “Groaning the oak holds sway over the landscape and listens disdainfully to the obscene whispers of the autobahn.”

In the chapter “When the World Wore a Fool’s Cap”, Nooteboom recalls Jorge Luis Borges’s tale of a map so large that it is coextensive with the world it portrays, thus posing the question as to the extent to which a map, or a travelogue for that matter, can represent reality. Nooteboom feels it is never entirely possible to dismiss misgivings about accuracy. Yet he would have us believe he is nostalgic for a romantic age when the blank spaces on the map inspired the voyager to sail into the unknown and when, as suggested in Roads to Santiago, the book of the world was only half-written.

Human beings will probably always hanker after the days when maps were paintings, with emperors, griffins and unicorns, maps on which compass roses bloomed on seas sailed by no man, a time when every ship that put to sea returned with a map different from the one with which it had left port, when, for a long while, the sheer scale of mystery dwarfed its resolution and the world could still be decked out in a fool’s cap. One sometimes suspects that Nooteboom, who was educated by monks in the Netherlands, would be happier cowled and slippered in an age rich in faith and mystery. Although by no means himself a man of faith, it is not overly difficult to imagine him settling down, after a lifetime of odysseys to strange, uncharted lands, to add the final touches to some magnificently illustrated Navigatio.

The exquisite, meditative chapters of Nomad’s Hotel serve as a fitting testament to Nooteboom’s nomadic life and, in the wake of the publication in English of Roads to Santiago, it was important that they be translated and anthologised. Nooteboom’s nomadic life has been that of a travelling writer rather than a writing traveller and this distinction is not lost in Ann Cleland’s accessible translation. On the author’s trip to Isfahan, made a third of a century ago, he said: “I am on my way to a poem …” So too is the reader who travels in his company.


Paul O'Brien works as a parliamentary reporter in the Houses of the Oireachtas. He is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland, Galway and has completed a postgraduate dissertation on British travel writing on Ireland in the eighteenth century.

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