Herman Mussert, Nooteboom’s first person narrator, is an academic, ‘a classical scholar, one-time teacher of Latin and Greek’, and he wakes one morning in a room in Lisbon having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam. So far so good is the feeling as we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery. It is, Mussert goes on to say about this strange predicament, a room in which he slept ‘twenty years ago with another man’s wife’. The scene is set for an explanation and exploration of time, perhaps. However, Nooteboom’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether. What transpires is the feeling of being cheated, not of the ‘Aha!’ smile that might have been the aim. Like Nooteboom’s writing though, this review already threatens to get ahead of itself.
Having struggled to complete Ben Okri’s Starbook, and still wading through the stage of bloodymindedness in order to get to that tome’s final page, it seemed a blessing to find by chance this slim book just slightly fewer than one hundred pages in length. These review pages have already suffered in the waiting for Okri to reveal himself: so finding Nooteboom (and the promise of intrigue as set up, by and large, by the overview above) appeared to be the kick-start a latent reviewer needed.
The Following Story (English version translated from the original Dutch — Het volgende Verhaal, 1991 — by Ina Rilke, Harvill Press 1996) was, apparently, the 1993 European Literary Prize winner. The criteria for the award of this prize would be of interest to this reader. Nooteboom’s Herman Mussert is written well enough, but he soon presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of Nooteboom himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence, such as the travel writing personas of both. Either way, Nooteboom soon has Mussert referencing all manner of classical characters and inserting Latin phrases with footnotes of explanation. Mussert’s alter ego persona is the author known as Dr Strabo, a travel writer creation, as a result of Mussert’s unseemly departure from his job at a Dutch grammar school. Strabo’s superficial writing for the masses, as it were, is not enough to allow the crusty pretentious edges of Mussert (or, indeed, Nooteboom himself) to be flaked away.
At its simplest level, The Following Story is a tale of Mussert’s affair with a fellow teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose husband — Arend Herfst — is equally enwrapped with one of the students, Lisa d’India. Zeinstra is painted in fiery tones, red-headed tempest as she is; Herfst is a basketball coach and author of poor poetry, according to Mussert; d’India is the almost divine beauty, adored by all, though Mussert claims not to have been bewitched himself. If Mussert has been thrown back in time when he wakes in Lisbon, having gone to bed in Amsterdam, we (and Nooteboom) wonder if the unrequited potential of Lisa d’India has anything to do with it.
Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here Nooteboom throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that Mussert is on a boat somewhere and somewhen. It isn’t at all clear what is going on. Perhaps Nooteboom intended it this way, but a reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in the middle of another without forewarning. It isn’t entirely fair to say this is another story completely because, as it transpires, things do become clearer. There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
What Nooteboom does at the start of the second half of the book is lands his lead character on a ship which, it turns out, is sailing up the wide estuary of the Amazon. He surrounds Mussert with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about on deck and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal. Nooteboom’s narrative flips between tenses and his attempts at cleverness in this knitting process sometimes fall short. By this time though the reader is urging the writer to proceed quickly to the denouement.
There are two writerly points of positive note that can be offered up here, however (one of subtlety, and one which almost works, in context). In the first instance, and with self-conscious regard to the flipping between points of view tenses, perhaps, allied to the nature of an affair, Nooteboom writes: ‘Arend Herfst. Third person.’ In the second instance, as a means of drawing a narrative digression back to an earlier observation of a character trait, Nooteboom writes that ‘the world is a never-ending cross-reference’. The attempt is noted, but it falls just short of its mark.
Mussert’s fall from grace at the school builds in slow exposition until the telling scene in which Herfst assaults him in the playground. Mussert is disgraced, and Herfst also loses his job, but not before the single line that pinpoints Lisa d’India’s fate is thrown out abruptly. Mussert narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy to account for his final lesson, citing d’India as his Crito in his rendering of Plato’s Phaedo, Mussert being cast as Socrates about to take the poison that would end his life. Nooteboom writes:
‘Now I am about to die. I gaze into the eyes of my pupils just as he must have gazed into the eyes of his, I know exactly who is Simmias and who Cebes, and all the time Lisa d’India had assuredly been Crito who, at the bottom of his heart, does not believe in immortality.’
Nooteboom’s tenses continue to shift, and he returns late on in an attempt at point of view shift: that is, trying to draw the reader into the tale, as he also attempts early on (which is washed over because the reference is unintelligible: ‘At this point I would like to be still, to wash away all those words. You have not told me how much time I have for my story.’) As the flimsy paper-thin ship passengers tell their tales one by one, then depart late on, Nooteboom writes: ‘Only Deng is left . . . the two of you are already there when I arrive. I will have to tell my story to you alone.’
As far as can be made out, Nooteboom seems to base his entire tale on the following premise: ‘It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined, it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings . . .’ If this is the constituent matter of European Literary Prize winners, there may well be a very long long-list every year. Perhaps the criteria also took into account the clever clumsiness of reference lines such as ‘The Lost World — had I ever read that book by Conan Doyle, there was a ship in it sailing up the Amazon, too, the Esmeralda?’ Or perhaps the following quip is of note: ‘I would like to hear a madrigal right now, by Sigismundo d’India.’ Nooteboom’s characterisation overspills into shedding light on the potential of his own pretension.
What begins as a promising intrigue, when Mussert awakes to find himself in a Lisbon bedroom having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam, dissolves into a contorted affair. It ends with a return to the intrigue, though the reader is, by now, somewhat weary and wary of the enforced ‘cleverness’ at play, even in fewer than a hundred pages. Suffice is to say that Nooteboom’s tale ‘ends’ with the unpunctuated line that is ‘the following story’, insinuating the reader’s continuing circular journey. This reader finished at the insertion of his own final full-stop.