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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing