Nomad's Hotel, by Cees Nooteboom, trans by Ann Kelland

A contemporary nomad's meditations and musings on the move
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The Independent Culture


The distinguished Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom is probably best known in English for his love letter to Spain, Roads to Santiago. He has always been a writer who travelled, with nests in Amsterdam, Berlin and the Balearics. He is also the author of Unbuilt Netherlands, a history of architectural projects which remain "not-built" - a condition he renders peculiarly potent.

Nomad's Hotel is a selection of 14 essayistic travel pieces which span four decades, criss-crossing West Africa and Europe with sidesteps to Australia and pre-revolutionary Iran. Nooteboom's ultimate subject is travel itself: a meditative movement through unknown places and the bottomless past. He begins by drawing on Arabian philosophy for theses on "voyaging" as a "pilgrimage" not towards God, but "mystery". For Nooteboom, the past is the new frontier, his obsessive attraction to it "a form of sickness, surely?".

Born in 1933, Nooteboom was 40 when he ventured up river in Gambia and Mali, to Marrakech and to the heart of Iran. These light-footed accounts are very much of their time, but mostly resist the kind of Occidental conceit that allows him once to identify a minaret with a "clenched fist". He marvels at Iran's ancientness and finds much else homely. In Africa, he knows he will not return and can only sketch, but this testimony is exceptionally acute.

In Europe - Munich, Zurich, Venice and the Aran islands - familiarity breeds historical riddles: "everything is charged with meaning". Europe is always a solitary place for Nooteboom. Here his "friends" are statues, zoo animals and empty churches. Yet for all the melancholic mapping by religious and literary memorials, Nooteboom's grip on a place remains inimitable.

He enters Venice with foreboding, "like a bird" from "one watery city to another", but leaves it distinctly renewed. His take on Aran becomes a paean to the devoted writer of a definitive portrait of the place. The key is his embrace of a state of "non-being", which opens him to the otherness of a place: mostly, its past.

Nooteboom dislikes people who feel "at home exclusively in the present". He has deve-loped a prose cleansed of living, speaking people, and can overindulge his "musings". However, there is rigour in his restlessness for which the reward is insight. Beautifully translated, the meditations on place and time in Nomad's Hotel achieve a potent state of non-completion.

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