"The shortcut does not allow one to arrive someplace more directly (more quickly), but rather to lose the way that ought to lead there." Maurice Blanchot
How does one deal with trauma? It’s a common question. Arthur Daane, roving documentary cameraman and protagonist of Cees Nooteboom’s latest novel, asks it too. He thinks of some of the traumatic events of his time:
"The woman who happened to be passing by when the bomb exploded in Madrid, the seven Trappist monks whose throats were cut in Algiers, the twenty boys gunned down before their parents’ eyes in Colombia, the entire trainful of commuters hacked to death with machetes in a five-minute burst of orgiastic fury in Johannesburg, the two hundred passengers on the plane that exploded above the sea, the two, three or six thousand men and boys killed in Srebrenica, the hundreds of thousand of woman and children slain in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola."
The list could go on and on. And that fact, Daane thinks, is perhaps the worst. "For one moment, a day, a week, they were front-page news, for several seconds they flowed through cables in every part of the globe, and then it began, the black, delete-button darkness of oblivion." Amnesia sets in "as if humanity wasn’t interested in individual names, only the blind survival of the species."
Daane is, as you might have guessed, a melancholy soul. But his otherwise mundane ruminations have a traumatic resonance. Some time before the novel begins, his wife and child were killed in a place crash. Alone, in time between jobs, he wanders the streets of Berlin with his camera, recording quiet moments at dawn or dusk in a city full of ghosts. This is his way of resisting amnesia, and yet it is also his way of forgetting ("dealing with" one might say) the permanent absence of his family. The paradox is central to his melancholy and to this novel. How can he move on without obliterating their individual names? The temptation is to dive into work, into experience and other forms of forgetfulness, but to do that, he thinks, would, in turn, lead to the sleep of reason, thereby summoning up the nightmares already spoken of.
In first half of the novel, we follow Arthur on his wandering. He visits friends in a bar, gets caught up with dying tramp on the snow-covered streets, visits a gallery with two paintings by Caspar David Friedrich that he is fascinated by, and a library that will, in the second half, change his life. Many reviewers have referred to this wandering with, at best, condescension. In particular, they disapprove of Arthur’s "intellectual posturing", which seems to mean any mention of anything other than that which will take the story "forward" into forgetfulness. This is a form of criticism that avoids the very issue addressed by the novel. Arthur is searching for an. He talks with his living friends, and listens to those who are dead, which take the form of memories, books, paintings, films, science and philosophy. It helps him. It helps his friends. But like all friends, they have their limits. And he knows it. They are useful only in their uselessness. This novel is a part of that scheme too. It has this wonderfully strange quality of enabling us to maintain contact with what is important to us, that which otherwise seems inaccessible, in that which takes us further away (i.e "escapism"). Indeed, the All Souls’ Day of the title is the Catholic holiday (November 2nd) commemorating the souls of the dead; another form of fiction in which one has to place one’s trust in order to cross the abyss.
On a ferry crossing the Baltic, thinking of the 1994 MV Estonia disaster, Arthur reflects that there is a thin membrane between him and chaos, as thin as the window he presses his face to, looking out to sea. The more ignorant of the reviewers (i.e. Julie Myerson of The Guardian) would rather we weren’t reminded of this and be allowed to plunge into forgetfulness, as if it were possible without denial. Nooteboom’s achievement is to open the abyss of history out of these everyday thoughts. He does this by showing how the rich heritage of speculation in the arts and sciences derives from the same confrontation with trauma as experienced by Arthur. This is seen as a failure by those, like Myerson, who can see learning only as a trophy to be displayed. Nooteboom wears his learning lightly but it seems one can’t escape the philistine thought-police of English literary criticism.
In terms of the plot, Arthur contrives to meet a history research student beginning a project on an obscure Spanish queen of the 12th Century. From what little is revealed, she appears, like Arthur, to be taking a roundabout route in resolving personal trauma. Despite this, both Arthur and readers of the novel seem to be on the brink of relief from endless speculation by falling into a love story. But the student, Elik, a fellow Dutch ex-patriot, remains mysteriously private despite their physical intimacy. Through her silence, she prompts even more fevered questioning. After a date, she disappears without warning and, when they meet again, refuses to reveal very much of herself. She prefers to argue about historiography with one of Arthur’s scholarly friends. The novelist doesn’t fill in the blanks for us; she remains a figure in the shadows at the edge of the prose. We have to speculate as much as Arthur, another reason for lazy readers to complain. Indeed, this novel is, despite its conventional, conversational surface, packed full of implicit allusions to its own provisional status in relation to its own research. There’s Arthur’s private film project (that Myerson selfishly misreads as "solipsistic" when it is precisely the opposite); there’s Elik’s research project much-criticised by her supervisor; and there’s the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich quietly expressing a latent trauma much like that of Munch’s much noisier The Scream. However, the most obvious correlation is Arthur’s half-requited infatuation with Elik. While for Myerson all this is inadmissibly reflexive, it creates a stimulating vertigo for the reader. We’re not allowed to forget for very long that the novel, and so its reader, is subject to the same problems of knowledge and its refusal.
This final point is emphasised by the occasional chapters in which a kind of Greek chorus intervenes in the narrative, looking down on the events with cool compassion. It’s unclear who is speaking. Perhaps it’s the voice of all that which cannot be included in what is, necessarily, a circumscribed narrative. Perhaps it’s Arthur’s late wife keeping a concerned eye on her husband. But most likely it is the voice from 500 years from now, when the past-as-tragedy has become the past-as-absurdist-comedy, just as the life of the Spanish queen seems to us now. Elik’s project was to rescue the queen from such a fate. Her supervisor warns her it might take a decade and be, in the end, futile; no one is likely to read the results. But she continues anyway, perhaps because of that, just as Arthur will continue to pursue Elik. For many, this novel will be similarly futile, slow-moving, overlong and provisional, but I’m very grateful that Cees Nooteboom has taken the long way round and rescued something precious from the traumatic inferno.