The Foxes Come at Night, By Cees Nooteboom, trans. Ina Rilke

Jonathan Gibbs
Friday 08 July 2011 00:00

Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom's short novels are exquisite toys for the broken-hearted, erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are never less than playful. Books like Rituals and The Following Story play the clever game of narrating those lives that burn briefly but vividly – from the position of those who watch the conflagration from the sidelines.

Nooteboom has also published poetry and some marvellous travel writing. That this stretches back to his days working as a sailor in the late 1950s gives a sense of the length of this writer's gaze. This, though, is his first collection of stories, translated without noticeable blemish by Ina Rilke. For a one-sentence summary, here is a character addressing a woman, then young, now dead, in a photograph: "Hard to say which is worse, getting old or being dead, but then you have never been old and I have never been dead."

Its eight stories are all concerned with death, and the way that memory tries to grapple with the absence it brings. Three begin with a photograph, that goad, doorway and barrier to the work of memory. Occasionally the dead person is a friend rather than a lover, as in the case of Heinz, a risible Dutch honorary vice-consul stranded on the Italian Ligurian coast – "a cheerful soul. But was he? What about the melancholy, what about the alcohol?"

He is part of a group of friends that gradually, inevitably unravels. The dissolution of the group, like the evaporation of love, is a phenomenon that Nooteboom is at pains to study, and at greater pains to leave, in the end, unfathomable.

"Heinz" is not the best story in the book, but the longest variation on the chosen theme. That there are a couple of squibs and make-weights in the collection does detract a little from its overall effect, but then to tread the same ground does carry that risk. Better – and closest to the flickering melancholy of The Following Story – are "Paula I" and "Paula II", linked stories that start with the usual forlorn narrator waxing mournful over a photo of the eponymous woman. She is beautiful (the photo is a Vogue cover) and enigmatic, with a voice that "we will all remember to the end of our days, the hint of rawness, hoarseness, drink, cigarettes, a kind of aspirated prelude to your utterances."

In the second story, Nooteboom gives us Paula's take on what it is like, in some kind of afterlife, to be remembered, and misremembered, without the chance of redress. Compare her limbo ("I am still alive, but there are no circumstances") to that Beckett invents for his characters, and it will seem an almost whimsical concoction, but then that is the paradox at the heart of Nooteboom's writing: that there is comfort to be found in loss. As with singing the blues, the articulation of pain brings its own degree of relief.

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