BOOKS / When every second counts: Nick Caistor meets the Dutch winner of the European literature prize, Cees Nooteboom

Not many novels are commissioned, but Cees Nooteboom was invited to write The Following Story as part of Holland's National Book Week. Each year, a theme is chosen and a writer selected. The resulting book is given away free to everyone who spends money in a bookshop during the relevant week.

Two years ago the theme was travel, and Cees Nooteboom, who has written a dozen travel books in Dutch, was chosen. When the bookshops announced a print run of 540,000, Nooteboom realised he was writing to a real deadline. 'For a while I panicked,' he confesses with a smile. 'But then, I never really have any idea where a book will lead me when I start out on it. The commission kicked me into life. I went to Lisbon for a week, noted down everything I saw, and then began to write. The book as always came from memory, which is evoked by the physical act of writing.' The Following Story went on to win the Aristeion European literary prize.

While British fiction is largely content to potter around the foothills of pyschological realism, the wider European novel seems determined to explore the heights of writing as artifice. Nooteboom has taken this so far that he brought Alpine drama to Holland's geography in his fairy tale In the Dutch Mountains. He later wrote a novel about the ways that fiction and reality intertwine, The Song of Truth and Semblance. In The Following Story, the action takes place in just two seconds.

In London for its publication in English, Nooteboom is quick to explain why his curiosity as a writer of fiction takes him beyond realism:

'We consist of so many more things than you normally find in realistic literature. There are so many people appearing in dreams that you have never seen, so we must have an internal machinery that fabricates those faces, bodies. That is what a writer does too. . . you give people in a novel a physical appearance, a type, a physique, that does not exist in real life, you make them do things, or they make you do things. That is the mystery, of course.'

He goes on to explain, in annoyingly perfect English ('No, I have never lived here, I just sort of, picked it up') just how Lisbon and memory become interwined in the novel: 'A man in Amsterdam has a heart attack or something similar, and imagines he is in Lisbon, where he had a love affair 20 years earlier. In fact, the whole of his life flashes before his eyes. It's often said this happens in only one second, but I'm generous and give him two. What does he see in those two seconds?'

From this opening proposition Nooteboom draws the reader into the life of the man in Amsterdam and his memories. His name is Herman Mussert - a Dutch joke. 'Mussert was our collaborator in the War. He was no good even at that, he was so stupid. When he was in prison before execution, he could not believe it, he started learning English] And as they led him out, he took off his jacket, folded it,' (Nooteboom mimicks him, handing me his neatly folded jacket) 'and gave it to the guard, 'so as not to get any bulletholes in it.'

Mussert was once a classics teacher in a small Dutch secondary school; he is at a loss in the 'swinging sixties', and because of this remoteness his pupils nickname him 'Socrates'. He is also known, to the readers of his popular travel guides as Dr Strabo. Already this multiple identity suggests the possibilities of change within one existence, both physical and spiritual, is the core of the book.

Nowhere is this more graphically and hilariously illustrated than when Mussert falls in love with the biology teacher at his school, the same woman he later spent a week with in Lisbon. Maria Zeinstra was showing a film about the sexton beetle and the way it used a dead rat ('it wasn't a big rat, but it was tremendously dead') to feed its young. 'I had never seen a beetle vomit before. I was sitting in the classroom with the woman I loved and I watched, as the science fiction head of a beetle, magnified a hundred times, vomited green bile over a pellet of carrion that had resembled a dead rat less than an hour ago.'

The second half of the novel (the second second, as it were) describes possibly the very last moment before death, when the brain continues to function after the blood supply from the heart has failed. Nooteboom imagines Mussert travelling across the Atlantic with other dead souls, and, in the very last page of the story, offers the intriguing possibility that it is at this very moment that whatever is left of Mussert can achieve a realisation that totally alters the meaning of his life. So the possibility of metamorphosis is open to us even to the last split second of our functioning. 'This perhaps is the nearest we can get to immortality', Nooteboom comments.

It is pretty serious stuff. 'Oh yes,' the author agrees. 'It's a story about life and death, love and eternity,' he laughs 'but I hope I have treated the ideas lightly. People have been thinking about them seriously for centuries, and have not got very far. But I want to treat earnest subjects lightheartedly, to play a game of chess with myself.'

Happily the novel is saved from onanism, or what Nooteboom calls 'metaphysical pretentiousness' by the verve and sparkle of its ideas. These seem random, but are linked to considerations not only of change but also of how the imagination works, and a fascination with how body and mind inhabit one another: how, for example, the brain can create images and memories.

At one point, Nooteboom has Mussert reflect: 'to me Mnemosyne was infinitely more real than the notion that all my memories, including those which I would eventually have of her, were potted up in a piggy-bank made of a grey, beige or cream-coloured, lobed and altogether rather slimy substance'.

In the end, it becomes clear from The Following Story (and from Nooteboom's work as a whole) that similar qualities are what makes for a good novelist: observation, intelligence, openness to experience and compassion as a result of it, a control over language and form to engage and entertain the reader. The novel may, as is often claimed, be dead, but as Mussert discovers, an awful lot can still happen in two seconds of afterlife.

(Photograph omitted)

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