BOOK REVIEW / Socrates goes Dutch: 'The Following Story' - Cees Nooteboom trs Ina Rilke: Harvill, 6.99 pounds

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'A NOVEL of ideas' is a strange or slightly off-putting label, as if some novels did not contain ideas, or as if the piece of writing in question contained, like an issue of Mind, only ideas - schemes divorced from life. This short novel is certainly philosophical, but it is also vivid. Part of its force lies in the way it combines these qualities, almost to the point of contradiction. It is both abstract and particular, poetic and prosiac, surreal and mundane. Even the genre it has invented for itself is oxymoronic: it's a Platonic romance.

Herman Mussert, misanthropic, fogeyish, self-conscious, digressive and faintly ridiculous, is our Prufrockian anti-hero. Once 'a dead language teacher' at a Dutch provincial school, he is aptly enough the spitting image of Socrates (which is to say, he is ugly): 'The same face flung together with blocks of clay.' More recently he has become the author of Dr Strabo's popular travel guides, although he cares nothing for these vulgar works: he is a man born out of time, his life centred on the Classics.

Waking up one morning with the impression that he might be dead, Mussert is disturbed to find that while he remembers going to bed in Amsterdam, he is now in a hotel room in Lisbon - a room, moreover, that was the setting of one of the few romantic episodes of his life. This Kafkaesque metamorphosis, of place if not of being, unleashes memories of the two women he has loved: the first a matter- of-fact biology teacher, an object of sensual love; the second his pupil, Lisa d'India, for whom he felt a purely spiritual devotion.

A question begins to plant itself: could this 'schizoid garden gnome from an antique shop' be the real Socrates, the ancient thinker reborn into a banausic, disenchanted age? Or are these simply the memories of a man who has known Socratic, or, as we call it, Platonic love? As Mussert sets off on a transatlantic voyage, other equally teasing questions arise: is he dreaming in Amsterdam, or is his life flashing before him as he dies at the end of his voyage? Is this a story set in the past, or one projected into the future? Does the mind survive the body or the body survive the mind?

Nooteboom's novel (which has just won the 1993 Aristeion Literary Prize) is so effortlessly smart that it can play the academics at their own game. Philosophers will be delighted by its exploration of the enigmas of mind and body, personal identity and time; students of modern literature by the games it plays with narration and narrator; classicists by its treatment of Socrates and its allusions to Herodotus, Ovid, Tacitus, and its use of classical quotation. (Not that Nooteboom need rely too heavily on the Ancients, for he's a good aphorist himself: 'Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.') There are also passages which will talk directly to scientists.

Yet beyond the learning so wittily displayed, there is something deeper that might speak to anyone: a voyage around memory and death, myth and disillusionment. By the end, Nooteboom has shown himself a master of ironic wisdom, but also of elated, elegiac feeling. Intricately composed and finely translated, The Following Story will still be delivering after many readings - and on the first it is funny as well as affecting.

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